Longing Beyond Life
in Louis de Bernieres’ ‘This Beautiful House’
by Jose Varghese
‘This Beautiful House’ by Louis de Bernieres opens in a direct, yet curious way: ‘I love it at Christmas. I just sit here at the end of the garden on top of the rockery, like a garden gnome’ (195). There is no gimmick, bait or philosophical observation to force readers into the complexity of the story. However, it is not the typically cheerful Christmas story that the apparently simple opening lines suggest. The unusual mix of the gleeful and the gloomy, the soothing and the eerie, the expectant and the disheartening, makes it a story worth reading again and again. Each time, the reader stumbles upon new discoveries.
This is the story of a man who keeps watch over his family’s house, and reflects upon the lost bliss of childhood, family togetherness and the celebratory atmosphere of Christmas. As he views the house from a distance, the unnamed narrator explores the unusual attachment he feels to his childhood home and revisits the relationships he had within it.
There are no clear boundaries with regard to time and space in ‘This Beautiful House’, and it is this fluidity that makes the surprises in the story so effective. It may remind one of a well-edited movie with deliberate time shifts: a Hollywood classic that experiments with stylised understatements or an art house film that explores the inner workings of the human mind through select images.
The story is from de Bernieres’ most recent collection, Notwithstanding (Vintage, 2010), a book which takes its name from the fictional English village where the stories are set. Here, strange yet endearing people, often with an outlandish sense of dress, roam the streets, and bizarre occurrences are the daily norm: birds crash into windows by the droves, a senile General goes shopping without his trousers, and Mrs. Mac happily interacts with the dead. Yet amid the many unfortunate events that take place in Notwithstanding, a spirited playfulness permeates the landscape. As is often the case in British humour, it is the idiosyncrasies of the not-so-perfect characters that saves the stories from tipping into gloominess.
In the first half of ‘This Beautiful House’, de Bernieres deliberately keeps the heat of the story very low, exploring in minute detail the particular mindset of the unnamed protagonist. This character vividly describes his house and the people he shared it with – his parents, twin brothers, sister, brother-in-law and Tobermory, the cat – as well as the birds, rabbits, model aeroplanes and tin soldiers which filled it in his youth. This special world he describes is clear and colourful, unlike his current existence, which is curiously vague and hard to visualise in any concrete terms. In the second half of the story, one shocking revelation after the other leads to an ending that is both eerie and beautiful.
The narrator’s opening comparison of himself to a garden gnome remains in the mind as he continues to speak passionately about the house: ‘Other people may not think it beautiful, but it’s beautiful to me mainly because I always loved it’ (195). We learn that the narrator was sent to Korea for military service, but returned to Notwithstanding to settle down to the life he was born to. He goes back to his childhood home and secretly pays rent to his mother, even as his brothers and sister move away. Thinking back on his youth, he reveals how he loved his upstairs room where he kept his model aeroplanes and tin soldiers, and how he shared a special friendship with his sister Catherine – on whom he enjoyed playing pranks. He tells us how he would try to scare her in the night, only for her to take her revenge by leaning over the banister and spitting on his head. In such scenes de Bernieres draws us into the emotional depths of our narrator’s world.
The brooding nature of the narrator is hinted at with the description of the big dusty attic which had been fitted out for a servant to live in. Here, he fixed a dartboard to the wall and spent hours on his own throwing darts, ‘backhand, underarm, over [the] shoulder, every possible way.’ Tellingly, he reveals that ‘I used to go up there when I was miserable as well because no one would know I was weeping’ (198).
He also remembers happier times, as when he and Catherine would ring the doorbell to fool their mother, and how once, when she opened the door, she found Tobermory the cat sitting on the porch looking up at her as if it was he who had pressed the bell. He remembers that Tobermory was named after a talking cat in a story that his father read to them. And he remembers the vivid nights when he would try in vain to impress his girlfriends by imitating his brother Sebastian who could identify the stars and planets.
And then there are memories of that one white Christmas, and of Catherine wearing a lilac coat with white rabbit fur framing her beautiful face. At this point, midway through the story, the narrative moves from touching descriptions of the festive day to horrifying recollections of ‘that dreadful night of the fire’ (200). Suddenly, the whole perspective of the story changes. The narrator goes on to describe how the candles on the Christmas tree set light to the curtains, causing the fire that burned down the house. His memories of waking in his bed, choking and fighting for breath, are recalled in detail up until the moment he passed out. After that, he can remember nothing more of the night’s events.
In a cinematic way, the scene cuts to our narrator sitting at the end of the garden looking back at the house and its Christmas tree with electric lights. The house has been re-built, and he observes how ‘It doesn’t die, it just keeps evolving. The house is alive. It watches over me always, and it’s watching me now’ (202). Then, in a shocking revelation he tells us: ‘The house may be alive, but my family aren’t’ (202) and we learn that everyone else, including the cat, perished on that fateful Christmas night. Death, however, doesn’t stop them from coming back.
All of his family members come to him as though they are still alive: they touch him and speak to him as if there is no difference between their existence and his. Concerned about his behaviour, they try to persuade him to stop ‘watching the house’, and his brother-in-law the baronet tells him it is high time that he leaves the place altogether. The narrator, though, tells his family that ‘[I]t’s really the house watching over [me]’, adding, ‘[A]nyway, you’re all dead (203).’ The next chilling revelation comes as Catherine confronts him: ‘When are you going to understand?’ (203). The possibility that he is also one of the dead strikes us here, and this idea is stressed again when his mother and Catherine kiss him on the cheek. He observes that ‘[I]t’s surprising how you can distinctly feel the kiss of someone who is dead’ (203) and recounts how his father once took his head in his hands and kissed him on the forehead. That kiss, too, had felt real. Now, his twin brothers subject him to more claps between his shoulder blades before everyone turns, waves at him and fades away. Only the family cat lingers on for a little while, and just before leaving, ‘reaches up to touch a claw to [my] hand, as he used to when he suspected that it contained a morsel of Cheddar cheese’ (204).
The protagonist lives in a world that is alive beyond the reality of death. Memories bring back an existence that is more real to him than reality. He is perfectly contented with his existence, and as he sits atop the rockery in his garden, by moonlight, the story ends:
I love it here. I love this beautiful house, I love the way it holds me as if it had hands and I was cupped inside them. I sit here and it watches over me, I feel absolute happiness, and there’s nothing I’d rather do. (204)
De Bernières deliberately distracts the reader from the narrative’s main course of events with his stunning descriptions, locating important revelations within these passages in order to take us by surprise. What impresses me the most is the casual, and at times unreliable, way in which the story is narrated. It is not too perfect to be true, and the narrator, with his fragments of vivid memories held loosely, with a lack of clear organisation of thought, is entirely convincing. That is as real as it gets, I feel. And the eerie Christmas is as beautiful as it gets too, just like the beautiful house and the haunting image of the man sitting on the rockery, like a garden gnome.
De Bernieres, Louis. Notwithstanding. Print.London: Vintage, 2010