House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
It's rare when a writer is able to give us a story so believably through the eyes of a child. Kaye Gibbons did this with Ellen Foster, a book that became an Oprah Pick. Greene's book is equally deserving--beautiful, skillful, and even more heartbreaking. Two girls, the ten-year-old narrator and her younger sister, one hard-of-hearing and one deaf, navigate the world of a mentally ill and abusive father, and an otherwise kind and loving mother whose complacency makes her complicit in the abuse.
In the opening chapter we see the girls and their mother hiding in the bathtub, as their father makes mysterious pounding noises elsewhere in the house. "Momma tells us it's a game.... 'We're practicing,' she signs, 'for an earthquake.' Her sign for the last word is big as she makes the word for earth, then clenches both hands into fists and beats the air in front of her. My sister laughs. I want to laugh, too, but I am distracted by. . .the other fists at the end of the house where our earthquake is, where Daddy is. 'If we hide in the tub,' she signs, 'it will keep us safe if the walls come down.' We lie against her and try to fall asleep as she signs above us. She tells us how to hide if the earthquake lasts a long time, what to do if the house falls down around us."
Eventually, metaphorically, the house does fall down. The father's condition worsens and the ramifications to his children are unthinkably horrific. The allegiance between the sisters is lovely, poignant and true; after a brutally violent punishment, the narrator says to her younger sister, "I should have gone first."
Greene's mastery of point-of-view and her steady focus on the objectivity and innocence of a child's perspective, balances out the horror and leaves the reader with a feeling of possibility and hope. There are characters who bring brightness to the story--a sweet cousin, a semi-helpful aunt, and most importantly, a God-send of a grandma who briefly shows these two girls what "home" really means.
The writing, without exception, is exquisite. I dare you to turn to the end of any chapter in this book, read the last sentence or last paragraph, and find it less than gorgeous. Other writers should study this book for the gloriously graceful and moving endings to every chapter.
Oprah Winfrey, are you listening?
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review and Necessary Fiction, among others. A House Made of Stars is her first book.