Under The House
Under the House is the story of a wealthy, prominent family which lives with a secret they are determined to keep. Only young Evelyn finds the courage to break down the wall of silence that keeps the truth at bay. Evelyn’s ally is Aunt Maude, a timid woman who has lived with the secret since childhood. The secret made her different, the butt of playground jokes. The secret was like the apples in the cellar under the house – rotting, sticky and soft.
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This accomplished first novel by a Canadian lawyer was well received in the author’s home country and England. Her tale of a respected Saskatchewan family centers on a dark secret, tantalizingly withheld until the last pages, that distorts the lives of one generation and threatens those in the next. S. D. Rathbone was an old-fashioned patriarch, inspiring overweening pride in his son Stanley. Another son, Clarence, is less assertive. An older daughter, Isabel, flees to Vancouver as a teenager, while Maude, the youngest and meekest, stays at home until she marries. Stanley weds a woman whose spirited illegitimate daughter revives old anxieties in the family. When S. D. dies, the girl runs away with Maude and precipitates a court case in which Stanley, motivated by greed, declares his belief that Maude is the daughter of Clarence and Isabel. Yet the subject of this sometimes rambling narrative is less the question of Maude’s parentage than an examination of the effects on family members of years of ignorance, guilt and festering accusation. Intense and compassionate, Pinder’s story skirts sensationalism by focusing on character. It is a powerful tale.
Part family-gothic, part offbeat coming-of-age drama, this Canadian first novel–by a Vancouver attorney–may be uncertainly shaped, but it’s full of memorable vignettes and striking characters. In 175 dense, episodic pages, Pinder tries to pack in all the gnarled psychopathology of the Rathbones, a rich Saskatchewan farm-family, from 1915 to 1958 (plus a 1986 prologue). The clan patriarch is aggressive, fierce S.D., catered to by meek wife Kathryn. The children are brutal son Stanley (eager to imitate S.D.), enigmatic daughter Isabel (who leaves home early, forever), stammering Clarence, and–youngest by far–Maude, the novel’s initial heroine. Always considered and feeling “”odd,”” Maude moves to Vancouver, marries, but returns home once, in 1946–when S.D. announces his Last Will and Testament, then promptly rips it up after being bullied by Stanley (who casts ugly doubts on Maude’s true parentage). Thereafter, however, the focus shifts primarily to Stanley’s stepdaughter Evelyn–who is six, illegitimate, already a victim, when her alcoholic mother Muriel marries into the Rathbone family in 1948.
Nursing fantasies of her real father, jealous of a new baby sister, Evelyn grows up rebellious, secretive, difficult–and is ultimately sent away to school in Winnipeg. But she returns to the Rathbone manse for S.D.’s funeral in 1958; Maude, now widowed, returns too. So these two outcasts now meet for the first time; sympathetic sparks fly; soon Evelyn, defying the apoplectic Stanley, has moved in with Aunts Maude and Isabel in Vancouver. And when Stanley publicly accuses Maude of kidnapping, the result is a trial–which brings all the family secrets into the open. In concept, the double-portrait culminating in a Maude-and-Evelyn coalition is splendid. As executed, however, it’s lopsided and ragged–especially since Pinder tries to squeeze in Stanley’s viewpoint too. So, at the close, with heavy emphasis on gothic revelations (the book’s least distinctive aspect), we’re left unsatisfied–knowing more than we’d like about some things, not nearly enough about others. Nonetheless, at its best–in the complex glimpses of idiosyncratic, flinty women–this is crisply poetic, powerful fiction reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen (One mesmerizing vignette, funny and faintly erotic: closed-off teen-ager Evelyn opens up–thanks to sherry, paddy cake, and a sympathetic teacher.) And, despite some self-consciousness in her metaphor-laden imagery, Pinder clearly registers as a writer with a future.
Kirkus, April 1988
“A haunting first novel by a writer of great talent and sensitivity. It treats a difficult theme with humanity and admirable complexity” — Margaret Atwood
“[Pinder’s] writing takes chances that are poetically vivid…this is a brave work.” — The New York Times
“[E]verything exists on more than one level, and nothing is quite what it seems. ‘Under the House’ is a striking and engaging debut.” — Chicago Tribune