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Book Review

A Good House by Bonnie Burnard

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Black Swan £8.99

There is so much to like about this book, and strangely so much to dislike. Bonnie Burnard won the 1999 Giller Prize (Canada's most prestigious literary award) for 'A Good House' and it is easy to see why. Burnard possesses a distinctive voice, making easy work of intensely descriptive prose that in other hands would have seemed tiresome and laboured. She has a unique style that allows her to present ordinary, everyday life as something special, yet painfully honest, and her ambition in taking on an epic tale must be admired.

Burnard's story spans 50 years in the life of one family and its ever-increasing circle. The novel begins in 1949 and the good house in question is that of Bill and Sylvia Chambers and their three children, Patrick, Daphne and Paul. However, two significant events early on – a devastating accident that leaves Daphne disfigured and the poignant, heartbreaking passing of Sylvia while still in her prime – have far-reaching consequences. Soon after Sylvia's death, Bill marries Margaret, more for companionship and expediency than love or passion, yet Margaret quickly assumes a central role in the Chambers family and becomes a comforting rock to lean on as the years go by.

The first few chapters are truly stunning. Burnard creates an utterly gripping family story that, despite the faults that later reveal themselves, requires the reader to continue to the very end. However, two main difficulties present themselves. After the first third of the book, in which Burnard covers a mere seven years in the life of the Chambers family, she then skips forward several years between each chapter, leaving the reader feeling cheated when missing out on significant events.

The other difficulty is that Burnard eventually creates a cast of too many. The result is that we lose touch with the inner feelings and motivation of the main characters and never develop any real relationship with those introduced later on. Nevertheless, 'A Good House' is a must-read as all that is good about it will stay with you long after you've forgotten the bad.

Amanda Fennelly

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