Shortlist year: 2016

Shortlist category: Fiction

Published by: Giramondo

The Life of Houses explores, with a poet’s eye for detail, the hidden tensions in one of Australia’s establishment families. These tensions come to the surface during a week in summer when Anna sends her daughter Kit to stay with her parents, and the unmarried sister who cares for them, in their old and decaying house by the sea. Kit barely knows her grandparents; her mother is estranged from the family and hasn't taken her to visit them. Recently separated from her husband, Anna sends Kit to them now so she can pursue a new love affair.

About the author

Lisa Gorton

Lisa Gorton wrote a PhD on the poetry of John Donne from the University of Oxford. She is a poet and novelist, essayist and reviewer. Her first poetry collection Press Release won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry; her second, Hotel Hyperion was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal. She is the author of Cloudland, a novel for children.

Judges’ comments

Lisa Gorton, in The Life of Houses, has written a highly original novel in which she has made the background of her narrative the foreground. She has taken a common place and made it mysterious and profound. Over a century ago the French novelist Gustave Flaubert said that he would like to write a book with no content, a book that was nothing but style. Lisa Gorton has gone some considerable way toward realising this essentially modernist ambition. She avoids all sensation, and the high points of her narrative all occur off stage, or are spoken of in the most low-key manner. These moments include a mother’s consideration of beginning an affair, a young girl’s failure to make a connection with a gay painter who is interested in her as a person, a ghost that never appears and the death of the girl’s grandfather. All these incidents, and others, typify what might be called the author’s contribution to the “a car went by” school of writing (walking to the beach one day it is noted that “a car went by” without any import or symbolism to this phrase).

While this is not a novel for every reader, those who enjoy observation will find it a book of exquisite precision. It is a work of realism taken to the point where that immemorial style is renewed for the modern reader. Some may remember the French novelist who caused a stir in the 1950s, Alain Robbe-Grillet, who concentrated on the physical objects informing his work. Like him, Lisa Gorton has written a book whose virtues are all in its details, but she has an unpretentious, clean and warm style which makes her remote from her similar predecessor.