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Book review: The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

Characters battling mental health crises are not new or even unusual in fiction today, but The Paper House is the latter in its unflinching dedication to capturing a realistic experience of one woman battling depression.

Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut novel tells the story of Heather, a young woman who has recently suffered a miscarriage after moving into a house festooned by a messy garden. The lavishly described plants curl around the house and into Heather’s journey of her attempts to recover the loss of her baby after a miscarriage in late pregnancy.

The garden remains one of very few ongoing sources of certainty throughout the book. Its promise of new life and pockets of shadows offer the protagonist scope for meditations and magical thinking that are among the most rewarding in the book.

“I watched the garden. I learned that in the mornings a currawong with half a beak came and sat on the balcony railing. I learned we had flowers that closed when the sun went down and opened again in the morning, like a supermarket. And although I couldn’t touch it, couldn’t breathe it in, by the end of the week I felt I knew everything about it.”

Heather’s love for plants and garden also serve to stitch together the lead story: Heather’s attempted recovery with a secondary and far more mysterious narrative: that of Heather’s childhood with a mother also struggling with significant challenges of her own.

Spargo-Ryan’s choice to have Heather as first-person narrator is both the most powerful aspect of the book, but also one of the more limiting.

The commitment to a first-person narrator makes the book’s attempt to grapple with the disorientation and withdrawal from those around them particularly painful, in a good way. After so many novels describing depression from the outside, The Paper House dives right into the experience with no apologies. The novel seems to be demanding to be taken for what it is: a beautiful yet unsentimental rendering of one of the worst periods of a woman’s life.

Rich though this reading experience is, it brings its own challenges. The fact the story is narrated by someone who is struggling to understand and is relatively untethered to the world means both the narrative and Heather herself can be frustratingly opaque, or eerily slow to develop. Perhaps this is the point.

Spargo-Ryan controls these gaps and lapses as much as possible with a cast of side characters including Heather’s husband Dave as well her colourful sister and elderly neighbours. Each of these characters speak directly to Heather about how she is coping and their solutions for her, which provides some much needed context.

While the book includes some difficult to understand and hard to read moments, these side characters make the book enjoyable to read, as does the use of food to punctuate the heavier passages of the book. These are reminiscent of children’s books where food serves as the climax of narratives rather than sex or death or disaster, all of which appear in Spargo-Ryan’s book.

The Paper House is a frank depiction of depression that manages to be moving without becoming morbid. While is it occasionally bewildering, Spargo-Ryan manages this confusion through her fierce dedication to capturing the realities of depression, and a sprinkling of warm moments throughout.

The Paper House is published by Picador Australia.

Disclaimer: The reviewer read a very early edition of the novel and provided feedback to its author.

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