The Bird family live together in a small picture-perfect Cotswold village. Meg, Beth, Rory and Rhys all go to the village school, and every night they have a home-cooked meal with their mum, Lorelei, and Dad, Colin. Easter is a very special time for the Birds, whose traditions include egg hunting in the garden and eating a roast dinner. However, when tragedy hits the family one Easter afternoon, their whole lives take a turn for the worst. Almost imperceptibly their relationships start to fall apart and they are forced to face the hard cold truth – even perfect families have secrets hidden behind closed doors.
I cannot even begin to describe how much I adore this book. But huge disclaimer… it’s a bit of a slow burner. “But Geneva, I thought you hated slow burners?” I hear you cry. Yes, under normal circumstances I absolutely hate slow burning books. But there’s one exception for me and that comes in the form of character development. Novels that focus on character development, and do them well, are right up there for me even if the plot is lacking. The House We Grew Up In is a masterpiece in domestic fiction which reminds readers that life is unpredictable and families are dysfunctional.
Lorelei has a major hoarding problem which clearly takes a toll on her children and husband. This then becomes almost impossible to control once tragedy hits them one Easter. Although she claims that she’s fine, the hoarding clearly becomes a coping mechanism for her pain which inevitably causes frustration for the rest of the family. Jewell writes about this topic so well and the way she describes each character’s changing emotions towards Lorelei is done with such sensitivity. A lot of the time when I’m reading, I don’t relate much to the characters’ emotions and experiences (thank God because I mostly read thrillers and crime novels!) but with The House We Grew Up In, I felt almost all of them. Jewell writes about family relationships so well that I felt every bit of affection, anger, frustration, love, shame, empathy and sympathy so deeply.
Jewell gave each character such a strong personality, which fell at each extreme of the spectrum, and masterfully described the different ways children can respond to their parents/partners. Meg acknowledged her mother’s problem and did everything she could to not be like her; Beth took the more sympathetic route and saw her mum as someone that needed to be babied – she felt like she needed to almost give up her life in order to look after her mum, which in turn made her scared to live life at all; Rory just wanted to run away and not be a part of any of it; Colin was generally quite pragmatic and just wanted to be loved; Molly, being of a new generation, played devil’s advocate in it all and made them all do some self-evaluation.
Let’s talk about childhood trauma for a bit. The National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” One thing I’m almost certain of is that everyone, no matter who you are or how you were brought up, has some form of childhood trauma to deal with. Whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s there. It’s not always one big event, it could be the result of smaller, consistent actions that are experienced as a child. For example, if a Dad laughs/shouts at his son when he cries, the boy will grow up repressing his emotions and not allowing himself to feel, which can cause communication issues in his adult relationships; if a child feels a lot of pressure to pursue a certain career that they don’t necessarily want, they may grow up with a lot of inner conflict and confusion about who they are -they may become indecisive having followed other people’s opinions their whole life.
What we have to remember is that oftentimes, those who create the childhood trauma for us, have experienced the same trauma in their childhood/adult life. It goes unresolved so it gets passed onto partners, children, grandchildren etc. I think Jewell’s novel shows this so well. We get to see how each child has developed different outcomes from their childhood trauma, whilst also allowing us to see each person as a human being, especially Lorelei. She’s clearly developed her hoarding habits as a result of trauma.
Trigger warnings: the novel deals with very sensitive topics including suicide, grief, incest and family drama. I do think, however, like always, Jewell deals with these so well and instead of tip toeing around them. Throughout the novel she faces these themes head on and gives such a real and raw depiction of them.
The plot twists in the novel weren’t jaw dropping and I was only really surprised by one reveal however, even if you’re a plot-driven reader I would still recommend reading The House We Grew Up In. It’s another beautifully written novel by Jewell who has crafted such a beautifully haunting story about how families can be the foundation, and destruction of any person.
The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell
Publication Date – 18/07/2013
Paperback pages – 448
Rating – 4/5