In Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy takes ordinary lives and dissects their ironies, injustices and pleasures with her humane eye and wry sense of humour.
In ‘Laminex and Mirrors’, a young woman working as a cleaner in a hospital helps an elderly patient defy doctor’s orders. In ‘Cross-Country’, a jilted lover manages to misinterpret her ex’s new life. And in ‘Ashes’, a son accompanies his mother on a journey to scatter his father’s remains, while lifelong resentments simmer in the background.
Like a House on Fire is a substantial book that maintains its quality from start to finish, with no slight or weak stories added to make weight. Kennedy is well known as one of the country’s best practitioners of the form and these fifteen strong and vivid stories do not disappoint, each of them showing her instinctive feel for the shape and pace of a short story. Kennedy is a realist writer who writes of ordinary people’s lives and feelings in the here and now, and her characters and their dilemmas are immediately recognisable and sometimes even uncomfortably close to home.
While alert to the darker side of life, Kennedy also focuses on the small moments of revelatory tenderness that can redeem even a toxic situation, as with the mother-and-child moments in ‘Ashes’ and ‘Five-Dollar Family’. She explores unorthodox relationships that stretch the boundaries of daily life, like the hospital cleaner with the elderly patient in ‘Laminex and Mirrors’, or the strange moments of family truce, as with the complicit sisters wrecking the family photo in ‘Whirlpool’. The stories in this collection have a strong family relationship that makes the book seem more that just the sum of its parts; it’s as though the various characters from the different stories could pass each other in the street every day.