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House Work: A Novel

A Pittsburgh woman struggles to raise her children after leaving her abusive husband. A "New York Times" Notable Book of the Year.
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About the Author

Kristina McGrath, raised in Pittsburgh, has won a Pushcart Press Prize and a Kenyon Review Award. She lives in Louisville.


There can be no doubt that McGrath is a gifted writer. This, her first novel, features writing that is startling in its beauty and challenging in its use of poetic language. She seems to find new ways to use the language, making this a "novel" in the literal sense. The story itself, however, is less compelling. In Pittsburgh during the 1950s, Anna Hallissey marries Guy and has three children. In turn, Anna, Guy, and their daughter Louise alternately tell how Guy's mental illness drives Anna to leave-but not divorce him-and to raise the children on her own. Not much else happens, and, surely, this is the stuff of daily life for many. Perhaps that alone makes it a story worth telling. There are strong echoes here of Tillie Olson's pioneering work, a tradition of feminist writing worth carrying on. For all serious collections of fiction.-David Dodd, Benicia P.L., Cal.

In poet and Pushcart Prize-winning storyteller McGrath's slim but haunting first novel, ``house work'' refers not only to home chores but to the web of family love and strife. Lyrically told and rendered with a feminist slant, the story re-creates the home life of the Hallissey clan, particularly of Anna and Guy and their youngest daughter, Lulie. Guy is an unpredictable black-haired charmer, an alcoholic who berates and repudiates his family. The romantic mystique that self-sacrificing Anna finds for a time in domesticity is conveyed without irony: ``Housework had a rhythm like prayer.'' Her dedication eventually sours, however, transforming into thankless servitude; when the marriage fails, her ``excellent inborn talent for ironing'' is rewarded with a ``brand-new ironing board and an immense white mangle'' from her sister so she can survive by ironing and housecleaning for others. In individual chapters, McGrath separately details the fluctuating relationships between family members. The dreamlike sequence ``Life Before with Tumbledown Dad,'' for instance, captures the fitful magic, malevolence and sorrow with which Guy infuses his dealings with his daughters; the chapter ends with Lulie's recognition of her calling as a poet: ``My voice is like a river. It will rise.'' Later, in the poignant ``Our Father's Room,'' Lulie and her sister visit their now broken father, who will die at 48. McGrath's richly imaged prose enchants, but its deliberate stylishness also slows down narrative flow; still, her carefully wrought debut will linger in readers' minds. (Sept.)

A remarkable achievement...A novel that tell us things we need to know about marriage and childhood, love and regret, memory and pain. The New York Times Full of a kind of quiet dazzle. Los Angeles Times An exquisite book, abundant with nuance and sensory experience. The Review of Higher Education

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