We meet Kit, a reticent and slightly spoilt teenager, just after her arrival at the train station of an unnamed Victorian seaside town. She has been picked up by her friendly, daggy aunt Treen and taken to the Sea House, a dilapidated nineteenth-century mansion that is a case study in antipodean gothic.
Treen lives in the Sea House as a carer and companion to Kit’s grandparents, Audrey and Patrick. In a cluttered, shabby kitchen, the family shares an awkward meal of beef with beans and roast potatoes. Kit’s mother, Anna, has neglected to tell Treen that Kit is a vegetarian, and the girl unhappily picks at her beans, which ‘had been frozen and tasted faintly of dishwashing liquid’. Treen shows Kit to her bedroom: ‘It was a room where no one could ever have been comfortable.’ Such precise and tense evocations of family life are frequent in The Life of Houses, poet Lisa Gorton’s extremely poised first adult novel.
This room was Kit’s mother’s bedroom when she was a child, and as Treen watches Kit moving between the ‘humourlessly florid’ mahogany furniture, she remarks, ‘You might be her, standing there’. Kit is not comfortable taking her mother’s place in the Sea House; she bridles when her relatives and their friends comment upon their physical similarity.