Time behaves erratically at the Reeve, the cliff-top mansion in Kate Collins’s A GOOD HOUSE FOR CHILDREN (Mariner, 325 pp., $30), a feminist gothic that evokes Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” Set in Dorset, England, the novel follows two different groups of the house’s inhabitants at different moments in time: Orla and Nick and their two children in 2017; and the nanny Lydia, her grieving widow boss, Sara, and Sara’s four children in 1976.
Orla’s gut warns her not to move to the Reeve — a place feared and loathed by people in the village — but Nick thinks the countryside will benefit their 3-year-old son, Sam, who mysteriously refuses to speak. Nick ignores her complaints that the house is too big and makes unexplained noises, and that she feels overwhelmed caring for Sam and their infant, Bridie, alone while Nick works back in Bristol during the week. “Only now, when reality smacked up against the ideal like a wave breaking on glass, did Orla allow that early promises had been broken,” Collins writes. “Or, perhaps, worse: that promises had been withheld.”
Back in 1976, Lydia hears “the thin sound of a baby crying from deep inside the house” and sees signs of strange phantom children around the estate. (When Nick and Orla arrive years later, the door to the old nursery is stuck shut.) Since moving from London, Sara’s twins, Tabitha and Clover, have been singing a frightening song they learned from some unknown entity. These city folks believe the sea air will cure their suffering, but the house itself, as Orla comes to see, is “like an infection in the blood.”
The mystery of the Reeve urges the female protagonists — each without a husband at home — toward moments of self-discovery. Orla realizes that with Nick, “she’d slipped into a life that she’d never intended”; Lydia that she’s never been able to “ask for what she wanted” in life, and so has never gotten it. The horror surfaces only in the presence of women, who are as abandoned as the house in the periods between its inhabitants.
Khashayar Khabushani’s heartbreaking debut, I WILL GREET THE SUN AGAIN (Hogarth, 222 pp., $27), is narrated by the young son of Iranian immigrants in California’s San Fernando Valley. Unlike his brothers, Justin and Shawn, K was given a Persian name by his Baba, who believed that his third son would become the shah of Iran. K — who goes by his first initial because “like my brothers I want to be known as a boy from L.A.” — is also Baba’s “favorite” target of sexual abuse.
Khabushani writes movingly about K’s queer coming-of-age and his burgeoning identity as a writer. He falls in love with his older neighbor Johnny, who takes him to Denny’s for the first time and with whom he shares one of the most tragic sex scenes I’ve ever read. Each night Baba forces the three boys to copy down sentences by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, wanting “our writing … to be the very best.” As a small act of rebellion, K cuts corners: “When I’m older I’ll get to write how I want to write, stories that aren’t old or long or in English that’s hard to understand. I want to write using my own rules.”
K avoids reality through a world of pretend, a child using his imagination to survive. He endures his father’s violations by transporting himself into the waves of the Pacific, “where my body is mine, only mine”; but K isn’t Baba’s only victim. In addition to his brothers, K also witnesses Baba abusing his Maman, who “doesn’t look afraid, as though she knew this was how things would go.” It dawns on him in this devastating moment that “maybe Maman’s known all along.”
Khabushani provides meaningful historical context for the pain passed down through these generations. Baba came to America to study engineering at Columbia, but he lost his job at Boeing and has been unemployed for years; he now gambles away what little money they have. When K finds an old photo of his father in Times Square, looking “so handsome, so American,” he asks Baba why he ever left New York. After the 1979 revolution, “nobody in New York wanted to hire an Iranian,” he says. “When bad things happen to America, Baba tells me, the people don’t forget so easily, or at all.” Decades later, K stops praying after 9/11 when his peers treat him “and everyone else who looks like me … as the ones responsible for America’s new grief.” But it isn’t long before K rediscovers the prayers his father taught him, “this part of my past I tried so hard to erase. Because this part of myself is being American.”
Ruth Madievsky’s surreal ALL-NIGHT PHARMACY (Catapult, 286 pp., $27) is a tender and hilarious coming-of-age story of two sisters. At 18, the unnamed narrator lives at home with her mentally ill mother (who has a “kaleidoscope of diagnoses no two psychiatrists could agree upon”) and her “absent father”; while her older sister, Debbie, has left home, pops pills and works as a stripper. The narrator imagines describing her family to a boyfriend, if she had one: “This is my mom, no one knows what’s wrong with her, get ready to duck when the glasses fly. This is my dad, no he’s not stoned, he’s just dead behind the eyes because he’s lonely in his marriage and finds parenting thankless.”
The sisters share a history of sexual trauma, and although each believes the other had it worse, the experiences bring them closer together: “I felt chemically bonded to Debbie,” the narrator says, “regardless of how much chaos she brought to my life.” Debbie, who has a laugh “like a manhole cover scraping across asphalt” and who “liked to say, ‘If you’re not asking yourself, Am I about to ruin my life? at least once a day, you’re not living a life at all,’” was molested by her pediatrician when she was 16; and the narrator was groomed by a handyman when she was 9. “What hurt me most was that we both thought we’d wanted it,” she says of herself and Debbie, “whatever it was. We both thought what happened was fine, but it wasn’t.”
The novel’s hair-raising climactic event involves an act of violence on the narrator’s part, and results in Debbie’s disappearance. In the aftermath, the narrator is approached by a mysterious young woman, a queer, psychic painter who is a Jewish refugee from Moldova. “I’m Sasha. You don’t know it yet, but we were destined to meet each other. I’m your amulet,” she says. “You’ve walked off a map the universe intends to keep you on. I’m going to help you find your way back.”
A magical, dreamlike presence in a hallucinatory narrative that is also surprisingly easy to follow, Sasha does help the narrator begin to live without Debbie, using every means from making tea to giving her multiple orgasms. But her powers are no match for the mystical pull between the siblings: “It was spiritual, how she magnetized me,” the narrator says. “Being Debbie’s sister was obliterating. It was also the closest thing to knowing who I was.”
Betsy Bonner is the author of “The Book of Atlantis Black.”