“Momma tells us it’s a game.”
A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene begins in the dark. Momma pulls her two young girls from their beds and takes them to hide in the bathroom. She locks the door and makes the girls lie down in the tub, piling towels on top of them. Then she gets in herself.
And thus we readers are pulled — ready or not — into this terrifying game of hide-and-seek and into this gut-wrenching story of one family’s desperation.
Told from the perspective of the older daughter, a perceptive ten-year-old who is hard-of-hearing, we see the family’s decent into poverty and violence through her eyes as she struggles to understand the actions of her self-destructive parents.
While I was reading A House Made of Stars, a memory came back to me. I was ten-years-old and playing at my friend Amanda’s house. Amanda’s father was dead — struck by lightning, she told me. Only now, years later, do I realize this is the kind of story a ten-year-old invents when she doesn’t know the truth, or, perhaps, when she’s trying to hide it.
My memory is of Amanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, acne-faced and heavy-set and scary as an ogre, chasing us through the house, threatening to kill us with a kitchen knife. Amanda and I hid from him in the attic, listening to his thumping footsteps below, and I didn’t know: was this a game? Or was he really going to kill us?
As a child — your life in the hands of the adults around you — there is fear in not knowing. And it’s scary when you realize the very adults you trust are hiding secrets.
In A House Made of Stars, Greene captures these fears of childhood, and she does so in the most dramatic of ways. The ten-year-old protagonist knows that secrets are being kept from her. She knows that Momma is hiding the truth about their family from Grandma (and perhaps from herself as well). She plays hide-and-seek with her cousin, but the real game is hiding from Daddy when he’s angry, or hiding in the car in the Wal-Mart parking lot when her bruises are too bad to be seen.
And because we experience the story through this ten-year-old narrator, we feel her fear. We overhear the adult’s voices in the next room, and we struggle along with her to understand what’s happening. Both she and the reader are in the dark, trying to make sense of this unstable adult world. We feel her helplessness, as well as her burgeoning strength.
A House Made of Stars certainly has similarities to stories of mental illness, poverty and child abuse, such as Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and perhaps that would be my criticism: that I’ve heard this story before. But Greene’s novel it is something unique as well. She makes risky but rewarding choices with the prose. The language is sparse and rhythmic, and none of the characters are named –which seems to add to the poignancy and universality of the story. The short chapters set the pace as fast and urgent, and the childlike voice is all the more haunting because of its simplicity. I raced through the book in one night, feeling like my ten-year-old self, hiding in the attic and listening as the thumping footsteps grew closer.
In A House Made of Stars, the girl’s struggle is not only to understand the truth that’s been hidden from her, but also to decide whether or not to keep hiding. Is she ready to be found — and for Daddy to be found out — and if so, what will that mean for her and her family?
In the end, for me, it was a game — Amanda’s big brother only trying to scare us — but not all children are so lucky. Perhaps we need another story like A House Made of Stars as a reminder that child abuse is happening all around us, hidden only by a thin veil of excuses and lies.
And, unfortunately, Tawnysha Greene’s gripping novel may be hidden from many potential readers. It’s published by Burlesque Press, which is a wonderful but small and relatively new operation. (A House Made of Stars is their second book.) This means you may not see Tawnysha’s book sitting on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. It is up to us readers to spread the word and help this lovely novel be found.
You can pre-order A House Made of Stars here; it will be available on Amazon soon.
You can visit Tawnysha Greene’s website here, or follow her on Twitter: @TawnyshaGreene
Watch for my interview with Tawnysha Greene, coming later this week!