The House on Eccles Road
The House on Eccles Road is an acute and poetic account of one day in the lives of Molly and Leo Bluhm. Estranged by the death of their three-year old son, Arjay, they lead separate lives that are only brought together by the literary techniques of an “almost present” narrator. Like Homer’s Penelope, Molly spends her day waiting to see whether Leo will remember their anniversary in time for them to celebrate. The novel is predominated by the consciousnesses of Molly and Leo, but we are also allowed other perspectives, such as that of Molly’s suitor, Ted Boyle, and that of her brother Brian. These other perspectives create an interesting, although not totally original, dialectic between closeness and distance, as the characters share many of the same thoughts and feelings without being able to communicate these to each other. The pivotal moment in the novel occurs when Molly stops waiting and lets her own life take over. Thus, the tables are turned and the novel ends as an antithesis to Ulysses, allowing Leo his soliloquy which he begins with “no” as he lays awake, waiting for Molly to come upstairs to their bedroom.
One of the most striking elements in Judith Kitchen’s novel is the way it incorporates this variety of voices and perspectives. As the author herself tells us in her acknowledgements, the novel is based on an idea originally conceived by J. M. Coetzee. In his essay “What is Realism?” Coetzee writes about the fictional author Elizabeth Costello, whose fourth novel The House on Eccles Street is structured around the character Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of Ulysses. In this sense, Kitchen’s book is a manifestation of the minds of two fictional females, that is, Molly Bloom and Elizabeth Costello.
The fictional author is, however, not a very potent presence in the novel. In a literary fashion very similar to that of Virginia Woolf, the author functions as a medium through which we are introduced to the consciousness of Molly Bluhm, as well as to those of the people surrounding her. In fact, while the novel’s surface is clear in its allusions to Ulysses, its internal structure bears a definite resemblance to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. On the surface, Milly is thinly disguised as Marcie, a chapter is structured like Joyce’s Ithaca chapter, the story is set in Dublin, Ohio, etc. Like Joyce, moreover, Kitchen employs the modernist stream-of-consciousness technique to move between the minds of the characters. As indicated above, however, her use of this technique is much more in the vein of Woolf. In a manner similar to what Woolf referred to as “tunnelling process,” Kitchen focuses on an object, a phrase or a thought and employs this to jump between minds. When Molly waves to Jackie, her neighbour, she thinks that Jackie pretends to be happy about her pregnancy when she really wants to go back to work. The transition between the two minds is achieved through the phrase "And now this" [p. 29], which seems to connect the two women and leads us directly into the musings of Jackie.
In a conversation with Judith Kitchen included in the Penguin edition of the novel, the author admits that Woolf provided the technique for this novel, but that her work otherwise “has only mildly inspired” her [p. 6]. To this reviewer, however, it seems that there is more of Woolf here than mere technique. In fact, there seems to be a deeper connection, which has to do with the poetics of language, with imagery and with the epistemological foundation of the novel, that is, the process of individuation in a female character. That is not to say that Kitchen’s work is merely a bleak mixture of Joyce and Woolf. As many reviewers have already pointed out, this novel has imaginative and poetic qualities that are strong enough to make it a significant piece of literature in its own right.
As in The Waves and in many of Woolf’s theoretical writings, water is the main metaphor in The House on Eccles Road. Water functions as a fundamental image through the memory of a flood that changed Molly’s childhood. Through the image of the flood, moreover, water, memory and time are intermingled, as the memory in the form of water spills over the hardwood floors and dissolves time [p. 76]. In the same manner, the memory of the flood also rises above its own frame as its constant presence is implied through the phrase "Her father with his head between his hands" [p. 75], which is repeated at various instances through the novel. Whereas Woolf employs water as a means to explain her own literary technique, however, Kitchen utilizes it as the main characteristic of her protagonist, Molly. Molly is perpetually waiting for Leo. She is waiting for him to appear physically so that they can celebrate their anniversary, but also emotionally, from the place that he has withdrawn to ever since their son died. In her poetic language of the self, Molly sees herself as drowning:
In his soliloquy we understand that Leo holds a deep understanding of how Molly feels, but that he has been unable to reach out to her: “I thought she had drowned under all that water above her […] and I still haven’t gone down” [p. 219]. The image of water as a metaphor for the condition of grief that the couple have fallen into after their son’s death, works very well. Again, although Woolf’s echo is definitely audible, Kitchen’s water metaphor does not function as a copy in any way. On the contrary, Woolf’s echo only adds depth to the metaphor because it heightens one’s awareness of witnessing something that takes place in the most hidden interiors of a poetic self.
The poetry of the self does not only describe Kitchen’s characters, but the novel as a whole. Molly holds a love for music that both functions as a leitmotif and is reflected in the poesy of the language. Literature, memory and music emerge as a multilayered entity in this book, as can be seen in an instance where Molly is reminiscing about her own childhood together with her brother, Brian:
alliterative flow of the language, together with the associative
image of the flood, awards the language with lyricism evocative
of music. After her son’s death, Molly has given up her song.
As she says herself, her voice has gone underground [p. 174].
The thoughts, words and musings of this one day, however, emerge
as a potential new song. This song is present both as a growing
affirmation of life in Molly herself and as a rendition of the thoughts
and feelings that flow through her during the course of the day.
Thus, the novel brings Molly back to life, in a manner that makes
her an enduring presence in the reader’s mind, even long after
the book has been read.