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Review: The House of Broken Bricks - Fiona Williams

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published: Faber & Faber, January 2024

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

“The smell of rain moves through the house. There’s a storm coming. It wakes the dead, who yawn and stir inside the soil to wait with dry throats.”

Tough Jamaican roots grow deep in English soil in this beautifully written fiction debut about a multicultural family reconnecting after a joined grief threatens to split them apart.

Meet the Hembry’s; a patchwork family of four, that may not seem to like they belong together upon first glance, but clearly had a tight and loving bond before tragedy struck. There’s Tess, of Jamaican heritage, struggling to find her footing in the cold English countryside. Yet she’s never been more unmoored than by the grief she’s suffered recently. There’s Richard; an Englishman of few words, who withdraws from the family to avoid painful memories. Then there’s the “rainbow twins”: who no-one believes to be actual twins due to their different appearance and skintone. Max, who takes after his father, and now often gets himself into trouble at school for running off with Sonny too much. And “golden-boy” Sonny; dreaming and ethereal, with his head in the clouds (or in his case: the nature around their house). Although we don’t know the nature of the loss that befell the family, we feel its effects from page one. Through their four perspectives, we learn not only what happened in the past, but also how a broken family strives to become whole again.

There are books you read for their story, and there are books you read for the way that story is told. The House of Broken Bricks firmly falls into the latter category. Fiona Williams’ stunning nature-writing and poetic prose, turns a relatively simple story into a hauntingly beautiful experience, that actually managed to tuck on my heartstrings a bit. First of all, the language on display is often just a joy to read by itself, although it might be a bit too much on the purple prose side, depending on your personal preferences. The book is populated by lush nature-imagery and gorgeously crafted sentences like:

“In the mellow heat, I feel myself expand so grief sinks into my marrow to become hard, as close to the underside of my skin as bone, yet soft, deep melding like the sinews that support my pelvis, which ease and stretch as I move about the house.”

In the wrong context, this can distract from the story and feel “overwritten”, but in this case it’s woven into the story so naturally, that it only enhances it.

Secondly, structurally, this book was really well crafted. It’s divided by fours in more ways than one. Each quarter of the book follows one of the four seasons in the English country-side, and each of these seasons reflects “a season” of the family’s journey. Another way the story is split into fours is by its narrators: Tess, Richard, Sonny and Max all taking turns and revealing their part of the story. One of the hardest things to do for an author, is write multiple distinct narrative voices for their protagonists, but Williams nails that here. Without even reading the title-headers, I was able to easily decern who was talking, just by the language used, and how it fit the character. Tess (who clearly suffers from a form of depression after what happened), fills her parts with a feeling of longing an melancholy. Sonny’s are almost dreamlike and filled with wonder about the world that surrounds him. Max’s are observant and matter-of-fact, whereas Richard’s (the only narrative told in 3rd person) feels distant, reflecting his literal withdrawal from the rest of the family.

Third and lastly; the reveal of the story feels inevitable in the best way possible. There are no cheap “twists”; that wouldn’t fit the story. Instead Williams slowly reveals what has already happened in a way that’s deeply bittersweet and memorable.

Fans of literary fiction with themes of family, grief and multicultural interest, who don’t mind their prose on the lyrical side, will devour this novel. I absolutely did.

Many thanks to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Find this book here on Goodreads


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