Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The image used for the cover of this first novel by Kelli Hawkins depicts what at first glance seems like the garden of a luxurious home – second and third glances reveal bare feet in the swimming pool which may or may not belong to a body, and the not quite correct alignment of the two diagonal halves of the photograph.  This disconnect suggests that, beyond the façade, there are dark forces at play and perhaps not everyone survives closer scrutiny.

Any premonition gained from scrutinising the cover image that the novel within will be a dark and disturbing one is soon reinforced by the novel’s first line: ‘I pulled over just in time. … In short, I felt like shit.’ [3]

The novel’s protagonist Kate Webb has a tragic backstory – one which she finds is difficult to confront without the assistance of considerable amounts of alcohol and her submission to obsessively visiting open houses in Sydney’s most desirable suburbs.  When inspecting these houses – and with neither the capacity nor the intention to buy – she imagines the ‘perfect’ families who inhabit them.  Kate seeks out the children’s rooms and, when she can imagine her four-year-old son Sascha living in one, she takes a small object from the room as a talisman.

The story of Sascha is also a tragic one but is disclosed to the reader only gradually and only through small vignettes such as: ‘I’d think about Sascha later, when I was alone in my apartment with a large glass of wine’ [16].  This sets up a slow-building tension in the novel and it may be natural – but premature – to assume at the beginning that it may be a light read.  It most definitely is not.

However, one open house is the Harding house owned by Brett and Pip Harding with their son Kingsley aged about 14 – the age Sascha would be now.  Kate knows Pip from college and at first glimpse Kate believes Kingsley is Sascha.  This confluence of knowledge and mistaken identity triggers Kate’s obsession with the family and her belief – as misguided as it turns out to be – that this is the perfect family with the perfect house.  When Kate by chance discovers something about Pip which may threaten the stability of her family, Kate’s response to the discovery launches a series of events which ultimately are tragic.

The author sets out two storylines.  The first is in the present and chapter titles as ‘Saturday, 5 July Morning’ and ‘Monday, 7 July Morning’ describe Kate’s day-to-day life; the second storyline is in the past and all those chapters are denoted by the title ‘Before’.  The question which immediately comes to mind is – before what?  The ‘what’ is the heart of the story and when the reader has full knowledge of what it is, much is understood about Kate and her behaviours.  But there is more to come.

With some insight but an alcohol-induced reduction in her capacity to think clearly and behave appropriately, Kate stumbles forward with an inevitability of consequence that is both thrilling and disturbing to watch [or read].  There is a twist at the end – which makes perfect sense when the reader gets there – but nevertheless provides an emotional jolt to the reader’s sensibilities.

Other People’s Houses is a well-paced thriller which essentially examines the lives of people in the suburbs and the tragedies, the duplicities and the obsessions which exist just below the surface in everyone.  Sometimes, these break through and tragic consequences may ensue.

Kelli Hawkins has written a psychological drama of some power.  It is well worth reading.

The author writes reports for a private investigator as well as novels for adults and children.  She has worked as a political journalist, a graphic designer, and a report writer.  This is her first novel and she has a new book coming out in September 2021 for middle-grade children.

Other People’s Houses

[2021]

by Kelli Hawkins

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 1 4607 5922 6

$32.99; 330pp

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