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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: The House on Coliseum Street by Shirley Ann Grau

In conjunction with the Louisiana Book Festival the state library has created a “One Festival, One Read” program. I was very pleased to see that they had chosen Shirley Ann Grau’s 1961 novel The House on Coliseum Street. I had previously read and loved Grau’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Keepers of the House. I have long described it as the most visceral reading experience of my life; this selection pointed me back in Grau’s direction and I was happy to oblige.

The House on Coliseum Street is a deeply internal novel. Grau tells the story of Joan Mitchell, a young girl tied to the house and the life she has inherited as well as her overbearing mother. Joan wonders through her world waiting for life to happen to her. Her boredom and overwhelming sense of ennui provide a sullen base to this slim novel. The novel begins with Joan’s mother and steady boyfriend retrieving her from an aunt’s house, bringing her back to the house of Coliseum Street.

The house itself is a character within the novel; serving its purpose as the setting but also standing to explain the emotional lives of the characters to the reader. The house is well maintained, fashionably decorated but cold. The house is never a warm home in the way that Joan’s family are never a warm support network. Both function on their most basic levels, as a dwelling and a collection of relatives.

The crux of the novel occurs when Joan begins seeing a professor from the local university (an old boyfriend of her younger sister’s). Michael uses his classroom as a dating service; Joan can see him for what he is, but being so starved for attention and excitement she accepts his invitations. The aftermath of this affair is devastating. Joan slips into a deep depression; forgoing all aspects of life and disappearing into her house, her library, and the nighttime streets of New Orleans.

Grau’s writing here is amazing. It is so spare yet deeply felt and beautiful. As a reader, to connect with someone so disconnected is rare and I cannot think of another novel that expresses this sense of turning away from the world so strongly and with such feeling (besides Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak). When factoring in the time that this novel was written Joan’s anger at her status and place in the world becomes even more meaningful – a young women in the 1950s had few options, especially coming from a family like Joan’s. The struggle for identity and the basic repression from all sides leave Joan hollow, and Grau does a wonderful job of showing her readers the repercussions of that emptiness. This is a great novel, not a happy story by any means, but one to think on and discuss.

Shirley Ann Grau will be speaking at the Louisiana Book Festival on Saturday. We’ll definitely be there and we hope to see you as well!

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