Review: Tawnysha Greene's House Made of Stars
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
2015 | $19.95
A HOUSE MADE OF STARS by Tawnysha Greene
Burlesque Press, 2015
In a pivotal scene in Tawnysha Greene’s A House Made of Stars (Burlesque Press, 2015), the ten-year-old narrator flips through a children’s illustrated guide to the Bible to find several pages stapled closed. Upon inspection, she discovers the chapters explore the Old Testament’s more radical women, those driven to violence by desperate circumstances: the prophet Deborah, who led the insurrection against the Canaanite army, and Jael, who murdered the Canaanite army commander Sisera by smashing his skull with a tent pole. In the book, Deborah holds “a staff much like the ones we had seen men like Moses and Gideon carry in other picture books.” Jael, of course, grasps “the bloody stake.”
The ten-year-old heroine of Stars is similarly influenced by dire circumstances, forced to slough off the innocence of childhood to make decisions the adults in her world cannot. She is the oldest child in a family helmed by a long-suffering, intensely religious mother who refuses to leave the narrator’s father, a violent manic depressive who swings, unpredictably, from sullen lethargy to giddy highs marked by excessive spending and impromptu trips to Disneyworld. The narrator, her younger sister, and their mother are subject to the father’s whims, riding the highs and suffering the lows, experiencing homelessness, starvation, and occasional, unspeakable violence. When their at-capacity family learns that a new baby is on the way, further peril is almost promised.
Greene’s narrator survives her world in the way girls often weather tumult: by becoming invisible, hiding with her sister “under the dining room table, pretending we were wolves hiding in a den.” The narrator is gifted with a superb sensory perspective that gives the novel glorious breath, scenes made rich with a nose, eyes, and a gut that misses absolutely nothing. The girls, both hearing-impaired, covertly communicate in sign language: “The word for Daddy is at my head, an open hand with the thumb hitting my forehead, but Gone is there, too, and I pull the sign for Daddy away, pull it back into the word gone, a sign that pulls my fingers closed as it goes farther and father away from me.”
The story takes us through carnage with clarity and capability and does not dip into shock value, even in a scene in which the father, on downswing from a manic episode, saws a rotting tooth from his mouth with a carving knife while the mother silently cleans up the mess: “She washes Daddy’s teeth and sets them on the counter. I pick them up. They’re chipped, black grooves on the side, but the teeth are large, flat, much bigger than mine. Momma whispers under her breath, then closes her eyes when she dries her hands. She’s praying.”
There is always the risk, when adults write from the perspective of children, of becoming precocious, dulled by efforts to achieve the effect of youth.
When adults write from the perspective of children, there is always the risk of, when aiming for innocence, missing the mark and landing on contrived precocity. But the voice of Greene’s narrator is wholly genuine, rich with the tones of a child describing her world with a clear eye. When there is no food, the narrator observes as “Momma stares at the cabinets, opens, closes them, opens them again, fishes her hand in the back for anything she might have lost, but she doesn’t find anything…she says we’re fasting, a prayer God listens to more, something Jesus did for forty days when he was in the wilderness. “We are in the wilderness now,” she says.”
House has much to offer, including a momentum that is deftly maintained through an increasing horror. The narrator vibrates, a bundle of wires in a house in which every important truth lives below language. She is caught in a battle no ten-year-old truly has a chance of winning. Yet she achieves an outsider perspective, deepened by a stable relationship with a loving grandmother, that grants her the ability to see her circumstances as the life threat they are. The story’s largest joy is the narrator’s evolution from terrified child, wary and self-conscious, to a warrior, pushed to her limits, capable of making a brave, beautiful leap beyond her years. The story is, as it should be, on her capable shoulders. “I choose women in the chapters Momma stapled closed,” she says. “The women are bigger in these pages, drawn with their eyes open, their bodies and hands strong, their mouths formed in a prayer or a war cry.” The liberation is not without its despair, but it is liberation nonetheless. It is the birth of the narrator’s true self, and the salvation of a character the reader comes to love.
About the Reviewer:
Kayla Whitaker holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, and her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly and others. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, she recently appeared alongside such luminaries as Lynyrd Skynyrd as a commentator in the History Channel’s southern culture documentary You Don’t Know Dixie. Originally from Eastern Kentucky, she currently lives in New York. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Random House in January 2017.