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There are some novels where I instantly feel connected to the narrator as if he were an old friend. Something about the way Ann Patchett presents her central character of Danny Conroy in her new novel “The Dutch House” hooked me to his consciousness. Maybe it's the tone of his wide-eyed innocence and ignorance as he looks back at his childhood, family life and the home he was cast out of. It's a sensibility I can relate to now that I'm in my early 40s and think back to the mysteries of my early life wondering why certain decisions were made. Danny and his sister Maeve grow up in a grand house with a prosperous father, but their mother abandoned them in their childhood. When their father marries a new woman named Andrea who brings her own two daughters into the house, the Conroy children feel themselves growing even more estranged from their aloof father. In their teenage years they are unceremoniously ousted from their family home and must fend for themselves. Danny recounts this story and the haunting way he and his sister often linger outside the house they've been cast out of ruminating about the past and the truth about their family. In a way, every adult must feel this way reflecting on what Joyce Carol Oates calls “the lost landscape” of childhood. Patchett also poses a number of tantalizing mysteries about this particular family which kept me gripped and I admire the subtle way she raises lingering questions to do with the meaning of family, belonging and home. 

The Dutch House of the title was purchased by Danny's father very cheaply in an auction after the family who built and inhabited it fell on hard times and eventually died out. He moves his whole family into this place which still contains all the furnishings and possessions of the previous owners. I like how on top of Danny's wonder about his own family circumstances there's the added mystery of the family that came before them. All their dramas and tribulations seem seared into the structure of the house so that we only see hints of it. This too feels very relatable in the way that we move into a new residence without knowing the story of those who lived their before but we have this odd intimacy with the people who proceeded us because we're inhabiting the space they lived their lives in before. But in Patchett's novel this has a kind of gothic feel as portraits of the previous family adorn the walls staring the Conroy family in the face and co-existing with them. It also has a bigger meaning when thinking about issues to do with capitalism, ownership and how the people who come to possess land and houses aren't always the people who are “justified” in inhabiting them. After all, aren't auctions and “bargain” prices on houses just legal ways of taking advantage of other people's misfortunes and unfortunate circumstances?

Patchett also perfectly frames a feeling of uncertainty and chaos in Danny's life. He grew up accustomed to a certain lifestyle and a belief in what he would become. But because things take an unexpected turn he's suddenly rudderless and doesn't know what direction he'll take: “There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.” It's so powerful how Patchett captures this feeling of being suspended in nothingness and being tormented by a terrible unknowningness.

There's also a terrifying sense in the novel that no matter how bonded we feel to our families they can turn out to be strangers. Since their mother left them early on and their father is so emotionally distant, there's an absence of the love which is supposed to make Danny and Maeve feel secure. They're profoundly disconnected from their parents. So much so that Danny wonders if they're a family at all: “It sounded so nostalgic when he said it, the three of us, as if we had once been a unit instead of just a circumstance.” Even though the brother and sister find trust and rely on their relationship to each other, there's a sombre and haunting sense of loss that their parents never gave them this security. Danny also realises that the bitterness they feel about this becomes an addiction: “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.” So part of their periodic vigilant sessions sitting in a car watching the house they grew up in is clinging to that sense of injustice while silently accusing their parents of abandoning them since their parents aren't there to emotionally stand trial.

There's a pleasure to the style of Patchett's story which has a fable-like feel and is in some ways a kind of modern Cinderella tale. But it also feels modern and relevant in how it reflects on deeper issues to do with our changing society by detailing how families have been made and disintegrated amidst larger economic fluctuations. The novel also creates a new kind of storytelling for which there isn't a precedent in how their mother leaves them for so long because “There is no story of the prodigal mother.” So, unlike “The Odyssey” which is driven more by a roaming father's ego and lust for conquest, their mother Elna's story is driven more by a compulsion to nurture a broken world rather than the children she's given birth to. I admire how these deeper meanings build throughout a novel which (on its surface) is quite a simple story with little plot, but after spending an extensive amount of time in Danny's consciousness I deeply felt their resonance. It proves how Patchett is an incredibly skilled and accomplished novelist.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnn Patchett