Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Stir of Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

"House has a mind of it's own," said Nathan, "and I don't know what it's thinking right now.  This isn't the way things are supposed to go."

"So what's supposed to happen," Julio asked.  His voice shook.  "Are we all supposed to die?"

"No.  You run away screaming, and tell everyone how scary it is here."

"But we can't."  Deirdre jerked the doorknob.

Susan slipped away from Edmund and went to the kitchen wall.  She placed her hands flat on it.  The house was breathing more rapidly.

She leaned against the wall, wondering at it's warmth.  It felt welcoming.  She sensed a laugh inside it.  She pressed her cheek against it, closed her eyes, breathed deeply in time with the house.

The house was alive, and the boy wasn't.  Page 35

This is the first novel by Hoffman I've read and I may have messed things up from the very start.  A Stir of Bones is a prequel to A Red Heart of Memories which was written four years before.  While reading the books in order of publication may impart some deeper attachment or meaning, I didn't feel short changed in anyway.

While not exactly dense the story is well controlled and the pacing reflects a style that I've encountered before with many of Hoffman's longer short stories.  That alone makes me think that this story about children and a haunted house is for adults, but the novel's sense of magic and wonder are certainly strong enough to appeal to any reader.

Susan, the main character, is perhaps the most boring girl on the planet.  She's endearing in that her lack of personality isn't necessarily her fault, but her fathers.  Her life is so tightly controlled by her father that she never has a chance to develop a personality.  She is Daddy's most prized possession; an angel; a 'princess.'

She is fourteen and learned at an even younger age that acting out, being an individual, a kid, or going against her father in any way, shape, or form, meant that bad things would happen to her mother.  Sometimes her parents had to make late night hospital visits due to Susan's behavior or she may notice her mother carrying herself in an awkward manner the next morning due to bruises easily concealed by clothing.  To escape the pain that Susan could bring about, her mother seeks alcohol.  To escape her abusive father and her mother's drinking--of which she is made to believe are directly related to her behavior--Susan seeks out a haunted house, a dead boy, and paradoxically, that which has been most explicitly forbidden to her by her father: friends.

Julio is an aspiring magician.  Unknowingly, Susan is something akin to a medium.  Alone with some other friends they spend time in a long abandon house with it's lone inhabitant: a long deceased suicide victim, Nathan,  a boy who died when he was their age.  Susan grows.  She develops as a person and finds that life--and even death--have more to offer her than the ridiculously harsh strictures that she lives under with her father.  As she learns the power of friendship and as her friends enable her with her own fey abilities Susan ceases to see the house as an escape, but as a symbol of power she can wield.

It's amazing how quickly we come to understand her father considering the minimal amount of time given to him.  While he is hyper possessive and controlling of Susan there was never a doubt that he loved her in his own way.  Susan can't stand up to him in any literal, physical sense.  Any opposition means horrible things for her mother, but through the house and her friends Susan finds that she does have the power to aid her mother.

It's a dark book but not overtly so.  There is plenty of reading in between the lines to be done and despite the fact that there is magic and children named 'Susan and Edmund' I'm not sure this book should be passed off to the kids.  I'll never know what anxieties and tensions I've missed by not reading these books in order of publication, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy A Stir of Bones and it certainly won't keep me from reading A Red Heart of Memories.

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