Thomas Alan Holmes
Review of A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
New Orleans: Burlesque Press, 2015. 189 pp. $19.95, paper.
The ten-year-old narrator of Tawnysha Greene's A House Made of Stars is just almost precocious enough to explain exactly the predicament her family suffers, but we learn quickly that a combination of her father's untreated bipolar disorder and her mother's dire reliance on faith alone endangers their entire family. Greene presents approximately a year in the narrator's life, as her father's illness worsens, forcing their family to rely on her paternal aunt for shelter and meager help. Although the narrator, her sister, and her mother find temporary relief in the narrator's maternal grandmother's home, the narrator's mother commits to returning to her husband, with harrowing risks to the lives placed completely under his control. Unlike her mother, Greene's narrator refuses to surrender, and her desperate attempts for rescue show her courage as her father's condition deteriorates. She remains heroic in her resilience and hope.
Greene takes on a couple of related, complicated challenges in her novel. Offered as a limited first-person narrative, the text presents details only as our young narrator can experience and understand them, and not all dangers make themselves immediately apparent. While playing hide-and-seek, she finds a diary shared between her aunt and mother that describes the types of torture her paternal grandmother would inflict on her children, prompting the narrator to wonder "if she became stronger when she beat her children, stronger than she ever was when she loved them." She notices that her paternal aunt can offer more demonstrative physical affection to the narrator's father than almost anyone else can. Most importantly, she learns to read her mother's actions and demeanor in measuring imminent threat from her father, seeing through her mother's empty words of encouragement as if her mother were an unwitting temperament barometer. Symbolically, her mother's selective acknowledgment of the family's dilemma serves as blindness analogous to her father's frequent refusal to acknowledge the very existence of his children. While driving the narrator and her sister home, her mother "closes her eyes as the road straightens ahead. She does this more the closer we get to home, and every time she does, she doesn't see the things I see"; in this passage, Greene through her narrator encapsulates all the opportunities the narrator's mother loses in rescuing her children from raging abuse and crippling poverty.
Another challenge Greene accepts in her novel is working with the characters' deafness. The narrator's younger sister is completely deaf, as is her brother born late in the novel. The narrator herself, hard of hearing, often relies on lip-reading and sign language, although she faces some difficulty in the latter because her mother limits the words she teaches just as she removes pages and omits parts of stories from the few books the children have. While the narrator's father also appears to have some hearing loss (he usually speaks in a raised voice and turns television volume up all the way), his refusal to listen also serves as a symbol of his ranging between neglect and abuse of his children, demanding respect of them but doing nothing to earn it. His disinterest in communicating with them through sign language underscores his willful separation. This physical isolation and its limited avenues for communication with the outside emphasize the narrator's omission of any character names. Greene's remarkable choice seems awkward at first as she presents new characters, but it later reinforces prominent themes in the novel. Being nameless asserts a denial of identity that our narrator resists. Also, in a telling scene late in the novel, Greene's narrator learns that another child has been leaving messages behind in hotel rooms, a discovery suggesting that the narrator's plight might be shared by any number of children passing anonymously by us, unseen and unheard.
When Greene introduces the narrator's maternal grandmother midway in the novel, one begins to hope that these particular children in this troubled family will be able to escape; her grandmother couples faith with pragmatism and appreciates her grandchildren's value, an influence that prevents our narrator from sinking into despair. The narrator's resilience, however, creates a quandary for the reader, or, at least, for me as a reader. Greene's novel engaged me so that even the second time through, I found it hard to put down, feeling so concerned for the children. With admirable skill, Greene writes descriptive prose readily accessible to youths, to her credit maintaining consistency in her young narrator's voice. She does not intend this novel only for young readers, however; for example, its sophisticated depiction of the role of traditional patriarchy and its influence on contemporary culture merits attention in a subsequent focused reading. Nevertheless, although Greene realizes the physical menace threatened by the father's illness, the adolescent narrator could in many ways prove an ally to others suffering analogous situations.
Tawnysha Greene's debut novel deserves your attention.
You can purchase A House Made of Stars here.
Thomas Alan Holmes teaches contemporary American literature at East Tennessee State University. His work has appeared in such various journals as Louisiana Literature, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Connecticut Review, The Appalachian Journal, North American Review, The Black Warrior Review, The Florida Review, and Blue Mesa Review. With Jesse Graves and Ernest Lee, he has edited Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Holston, to be published by The University of Tennessee Press in late 2015.