A father comes home and excitedly announces to his wife and young children, “We’re going to Disneyland!” It should be a moment of joy and elation, but it is nothing of the sort. The father is unemployed, mentally ill, violently abusive; his wife and children are starving. The children’s mother tells them being hungry is “a good thing. We’re fasting, a prayer God listens to more.” The prayer is answered with theme park tickets, and the moment is one in a long line of stunning heartbreaks that burn like stars on the pages of Tawnysha Greene’s beautifully crafted novel.
The story is told through the point of view of the couple’s oldest daughter, a girl of ten who has to deal with all the normal issues faced by a child on the edge of puberty made infinitely more problematic—and harrowing—by her upbringing. Curious about the pretty bras she sees in a store, she asks her mother about them only to be told “‘Jezebels wear them.’ That’s her word for women who have fallen from God.” Her mother once took the children out of church because “the pastor’s wife stood up to pray, something Momma said a woman had no right to do.” “‘I don’t want to expose them to that,’” Momma explains to her own mother, who retorts, “‘To what? … To a woman speaking?’”
If the girl’s father had his way—and he is frequently enabled to get his way—neither wife nor children would speak, would communicate in any form at all. The youngest daughter is hearing impaired, yet Momma and the narrator can only sign to her secretly, when Daddy isn’t looking. His own mother was hearing impaired; signing reminds him of her, and while vague hints are dropped about the woman’s own mental illness and abusiveness, none of the adults ever want to talk about it. No one is allowed to talk about anything that will upset Daddy; any attempt to protest, even to defend each other, is seen as “disrespect.” For disrespecting Daddy, the whole family is lined up and viciously beaten. After one such incident, prompted only by the youngest daughter screaming “Stop it!”, the narrator apologizes—not to Daddy, but to her sister, who was the first to be beaten. “I should have gone first,” she signs.
This moment—when a little girl is sorry not because she did something that resulted in a beating but because she feels like she should have been the first to be punished instead of her more vulnerable sister—is just about heart-stopping. It is one of many such moments. Greene’s prose is spare, seamless, and pitch-perfect. The young girl’s point of view is completely believable from start to finish, and that makes this less a sensationalistic story of a dysfunctional family and far more the story of an individual’s struggle to understand who she is and what she is capable of doing.
It is frustrating at times reading about characters whose motives seem so unfathomable and—it’s hard not to be judgmental—just plain wrong. Her children are starved and beaten, as is she, and every last bit of money she tries to save is taken by her husband and spent on useless trinkets, yet Momma still misses him, still prays for his return. “She tells Daddy she’s sorry and asks him to forgive her, and it sounds like the prayer Momma makes us say when we’ve done something wrong, and we must ask God to make us clean again.” In showing these events from a child’s eyes, Greene eschews complex psychological analysis and instead presents the stark reality of these lives. We are never given any specific details about the mental illness of Daddy or Daddy’s mother, nor are we given more than hints as to why Momma clings to this man. “She thinks she’s being brave” is as close as the children’s grandmother can get to understanding her daughter’s stubborn devotion.
This frustration is necessary because it allows the reader to get an unfiltered view of this girl’s world. The narrator doesn’t understand any better than we do why these people, adults who are supposed to guide and protect them, act no more maturely and responsibly than children—dangerous children. Because of this, she learns how to see the world from her own eyes—and, importantly, to take action to get out of this world and into a new one of her own making. The “house” in the novel’s title refers at first to one of the constellations, Cepheus, who in Greek mythology was a king who sacrificed his daughter. Indeed, it could very easily seem to this child that her father rules the family with absolute authority over her life. Yet she describes the constellation as looking like “a house tilted over on its side”—not sturdy or powerful—and ultimately she rejects it. “I trace a new house of stars, except upright in a way I’ve never seen in the sky,” she says at a critical moment late in the story. “There is no king here … I stand alone, hands out, so they reach up and touch the walls of my house of stars, holding it up, so that it is strong.”