A Rich, Capacious Family Saga, Bookended by Tragedy

A HOUSE FOR ALICE, by Diana Evans

Houses in Diana Evans’s new novel, “A House for Alice,” are a metaphor for family. They’re filled with rooms for sleeping, lovemaking, fighting; contain corridors that lead to areas of welcome and comfort; shelter spaces that hold secrets. And like a house, a family can be burned to nothing and rebuilt anew.

“A House for Alice” is the story of a family’s reckoning after personal and community tragedies. The book opens with the historic 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London that destroyed more than 100 homes and took the lives of 72 people. This disaster is juxtaposed against a more personal one: The elderly patriarch of the Pitt family, Cornelius, dies alone at home after a fire breaks out in his house. Cornelius is a middle-class white man. His wife, the eponymous Alice, immigrated to Britain decades earlier from Nigeria when they married. Together they have three children and a number of grandchildren.

Cornelius and Alice have been separated for years. Though a violent father and cold husband, he has continued to send money back to Nigeria, where Alice’s relatives are building her a house so she can fulfill her dream of one day returning to the country. Now that Cornelius has died, Alice is wondering if her time to leave England has arrived, despite her children’s disapproval.

The book seems to announce that the story’s dramatic tension will be about Alice’s question of whether to leave Britain or not, but this is just its first trick. Like a family house, there are many rooms to explore here. Alice’s desire is just one. This is a realist novel and a novel about ghosts; an immigrant novel about what it means to return home; a novel of women that may actually be a novel about men.

Readers may know Evans from her acclaimed 2018 novel “Ordinary People.” Characters from that earlier novel make appearances here, but there is no need to have read that previous title to enjoy this new one.

The novel is written in vignettes, each a few months apart and each associated with death or a near-death experience. Evans uses these brushes with mortality as a structural device, a springboard for the novel to jump forward in time among various players in the novel’s cast as they figure out the salient questions of their lives, such as when to stay married and when to divorce, when to protect your children and when to let them face the world on their own.

Each character here is richly and deeply drawn, with histories and personalities so fully realized that it’s a pleasure to get to know them. Take Nicole, ostensibly a secondary character; she’s Alice’s daughter’s former husband’s new wife. Evans writes Nicole with so much fullness — she’s grappling with a music career and more — that though she is a side character, one could easily imagine her as the star of another novel. She’s just one of the many characters, big and small, who come to life here. I would not be surprised if Evans revisits these characters in the future.

At the center of this all is Alice herself. Her children see her as someone who didn’t protect them from their father’s abuse, but now that they are older they also understand that she too was a victim. They want her ongoing presence in their own and their children’s lives. They love her, but their love is needy; she loves them but her love has never been enough.

“A House for Alice” is in obvious dialogue with “A House for Mr. Biswas,” V.S. Naipaul’s story about a man longing for a house to deliver him from abusive family structures. Evans grapples with similar themes in this novel, but here, it’s women who are trying to escape mistreatment.

Evans’s writing stuns, showcasing a flair that turns even dying into poetry. “Cornelius leapt up, his spine unregistering, uncomplaining, for there were more important things at stake like breath, and the beat of the heart, and the batting of his cardigan,” Evans writes in the opening scene of the Pitt patriarch’s death. Her metaphors are capacious, and she uses them wisely. In addition to the motif of the house, there is a repeated image of an ephemeral girl in green with upward burning hair. The girl is sometimes a traumatic response, a prophetic vision or a curse, depending on the character who sees her. She is a symbol of the most harrowing of hauntings a family can face: its own history.

The most brilliant element of the novel comes at the close of the book, where the story ends, and then ends again. I won’t spoil it by revealing more, but I will say: This is a novel that encourages us to stand in life’s burning doorways, and to think long before we walk away or walk through.

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of “Monster in the Middle” and a professor of creative writing and literature at Emory University.

A HOUSE FOR ALICE | By Diana Evans | 344 pp. | Pantheon | $28

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