A House Without Spirits by David Homel

Paul, an American expat who has been in Montreal for decades, is hired by an art press to write a monograph about the experimental portrait artist John Marchuk. Paul’s research brings him to Marchuk’s rundown home, which is boarded up and packed with decades of accumulation, a sort of labyrinth of personal effects. He spent his childhood in a proxy war with his brother, each on opposite sides of their parents’ ongoing marital alienation, and this poor relationship has persisted into old age. Paul feels a mix of pity and disgust for Marchuk’s reduced circumstances, and the other man’s depressing life invites Paul to reflect on his own. An offhanded comment from an acquaintance has caused him to begin mining his childhood for signs of unacknowledged trauma, and Marchuk’s existence brings into sharp focus the contours of Paul’s comparatively conventional life.

“A sparse, slim novel, A House Without Spirits asks provocative questions about art, representation, and the fundamentals of human relationships.”

As a narrator, Paul is frequently opaque, resistant to looking at his own life closely until proximity to Marchuk forces such a confrontation. He occupies a position that is immediately recognizable as that of an older white man, but he attempts to acknowledge that position even if he is unable to see beyond it. His sons, now fathers themselves, frequently amaze him in their effortless and apparently unconscious rejection of the toxic masculinity that has so shaped Paul’s life. In a discussion of Marchuk’s photographs with his partner, Laure, Paul’s position is particularly clear: Laure is more disturbed by what she sees as the questionable ethics of photography, her unease coalescing around a photograph of a naked woman. Paul’s ability to see is affected by his positionality, and it is clear that the interpretation of art can never be objective. These questions – particularly those surrounding consent to be photographed and what it means to be captured, frozen according to someone else’s gaze – are at the forefront of the novel and in Paul’s interactions with Marchuk. But if a photograph is time stopped, Paul begins experiencing the dislocation of time as he engages more with his own past. He experiences hauntings both literal and metaphorical, and Marchuk himself comes to haunt Paul’s imagination, becoming a larger-than-life figure of abjection in his mind.

A sparse, slim novel, A House Without Spirits asks provocative questions about art, representation, and the fundamentals of human relationships. Is it possible to care for someone for whom we overwhelmingly feel pity? When we represent someone else, what is lost? How do accumulations of objects, memories, and histories shape the way we live? The novel seems to suggest that it is impossible to be curious about the lives of others without casting that curiosity upon ourselves. Paul has spent years declining to interrogate his own life, but his relationship with Marchuk illuminates the pains he has avoided acknowledging. It’s an impactful novel of ideas that weaves together art, ethics, and the personal in exciting ways. If the ending feels inevitable, that is perhaps a further commentary on the limits of imagination.

David Homel is the author of nine novels and a memoir, as well as a series of books for younger readers co-written with Marie-Louise Gay. A prize-winning writer and translator, he has worked in documentary film, print and radio journalism. He lives in Montreal.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Esplanade Books (Oct. 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 220 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1550656066
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1550656060

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.