Thursday, January 05, 2006

The kind of pain that kills pain

I've just finished reading the most extraordinary novel, House Rules by Heather Lewis. I have a strong stomach, but it's really stomach-turningly disturbing, and one of the best novels I've ever read. Talk about female noir. . . . Flattened-out first-person narration, teenage girls, show-jumping, absolutely brutal sex scenes (some of the most disturbing but also erotic I've ever come across), cigarettes and bourbon and doping (horses and people): this book will not suit everyone (I was not exaggerating above, it literally made me feel sick to my stomach, it's that intense), but the combination of writing and sensibility is quite remarkable.

I've been meaning to read Lewis for a while now, Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail told me about her first and then Dale Peck's piece in New York Magazine (click on that link in part for the really amazing photograph of Lewis) compounded my sense that this was a writer I would particularly like. And here's an interesting short piece by Charlie Dickinson about her novel Notice (published posthumously by Serpent's Tail in 2002, following Lewis's death by her own hand at age forty).

I was reminded of two other particularly favorite novels of mine with roughly comparable subject matter (and both--like this one--written to the highest possible standard of language), Jenny Diski's Nothing Natural (which I picked up in the bookstore at Heathrow without having heard anything about it--it just caught my eye--and then was consumed by on the flight back to New York, it was one of the most intense reading experiences of my entire life) and Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby.

I must get Heather Lewis's other two novels as soon as possible (The Second Suspect is the other one, published second but written third). Though first I had better read something more morally uplifting and cheery, this is not wise January reading (especially as I have done exceptionally well and not smoked a single cigarette since the first weekend in September, and it is hard to imagine a more cigarette-smoking-inducing writer than Lewis). . . .


  1. I thought Heather Lewis sounded familiar, and then I remembered Marcy also mentioned her work at The Millions: link.

    Now on my shortlist!

    And congratulations on quitting smoking, Jenny; that's quite an achievement!

    XX, LC

  2. So I'm reading House Rules based on your mention of it in the "Underrated Writers" list and...I've never read anything quite like it before. It's brutal, it's uncomfortable but not...repulsive. I'll definitely have to read the rest in her trilogy.

  3. Yes her writing is amazing. Does anybody know what her life story was exactly?

  4. What stirred you about that photograph by the way? Too far away to see her face; I assumed she looked differently, was more classical beautiful but it was so boyish her look..

  5. i knew heather lewis, in a way. i was a student in her writing class in 1996 where she chose my short story for inclusion in an anthology she was guest editing.
    she was very supportive of my work & was instrumental in my forming an identity as a writer.
    heather was a dark person who once told me over lunch that everything that happened in house rules 'was true'. this she told me in an understated way. i didn't choose to question her further, because it all seemed so bizarre, though of course, perfectly understandable.
    i only learned of her suicide when i happened upon the 'posthumous' review of her book in new york magazine & was very disturbed by the news... i knew she had been making 'house rules' into a film & thought she was doing well. i hadn't realized the extent of her pain re the abuse she underwent as a teenager... she had been an alcoholic at an early age, & eventually got involved in 'deeper stuff'. i had seen her on a nyc bus yrs ago after her mother had recently passed & she was distant, especially when i called her to express my condolences. she could be hard to get close to. however, her book, house rules is a wonderful understated work which encapsulated her attitude of how she thought & who she was. it will live on forever. i'm glad other people r appreciating her work, she would be pleased. i was very saddened by her passing; i think it could have been prevented.

  6. I worked for a while with Heather at a shop in Westchester, and although we were never close, we had a kind of friendship based mostly on trying to stay semi-sane in the midst of our family lives, the craziness of the retail world, and when we went across the street to have a lunchtime drink or two, we talked about someday what we would do when real life finally kicked in for us.
    I ran into her a couple of years later at a GLBT literary convention in Boston, and she seemed elated about her novel House Rules, she looked stronger and more confident than I had seen her look. But she told me she still felt that it was all something of a mirage - her words - that would disappear because it was just not quite meant to be. We said we would stay in touch, exchanged phone numbers and addresses, and then we never did get in touch again. I called her once - no return phone call ever came. She wasn't an easy person. At all. When I heard about her suicide, I was devastated. She was a remarkable person. Not easy, but remarkable. I think her three novels, together, are a truly important document of a life, of a time, of a style that merits close and repeated study. She had something to say - a rare quality in these days.

  7. hey, I'm making it sort of my business to gather, well pretty much everything and anything I can find about Heather Lewis, because someone just has to... so visit
    if you should be interested :)