A House Named Brazil
The old adage --- never judge a book by its cover --- can also apply to titles, as in Audrey Schulman's A HOUSE NAMED BRAZIL. Whatever you might be imagining at this point, it's unlikely that it will come close to what you'll discover in this highly innovative novel. If you envisioned an exotic plantation festooned with tropical foliage and colorful macaws, you're in for a shock. "The house," which appears later in the storyline, is ramshackle collage of endless appendages sprawling through the Florida swampland: grotesque, roughly constructed and flawed, like it's inhabitants. But don't be disillusioned; Schulman has masterfully fashioned this definitive setting for the various generations of the Mourne family that were gathered, once upon a time, within it's walls.
Schulman's creative backstory of the Mourne family tree is coupled with an inspired portrayal of the relationship between a mother and daughter. A HOUSE NAMED BRAZIL primarily revolves around Fran, the great great granddaughter of the matriarch of the Mournes, and Fran's mother Gloria, who abandoned her when she was a child of 14. Over the years, Fran's feelings toward her mother fluctuated between painful longing and angry dismissal; but now, at the age of 40, she finds herself anchored to their dilapidated house on the run-down Canadian farm where memories of her mother assail her daily.
"My mother had always been charismatic. I'd seen it. Strangers followed after her with their eyes, people phoned her after meeting her once, after listening to her talk for just 20 minutes...Her voice was so certain, her gestures dramatic, her walk suggested she knew something...People wanted to be around her...I was not the only person she captivated. I was just her daughter. It was just she was all the family I had. Her face the upholstery of my memories."
Her unflagging adoration for this woman who was hardly the epitome of motherhood is palpable and serves to deepen the tragic image of a lonely young girl struggling to survive on her own. When her mother begins phoning her, Fran savors the nightly phone calls and imagines that her mother, in her own way, is reaching out to her at last.
Although much of Fran's story is heart wrenching, her memories are often laced with an undercurrent of humor as well, as she reflects on some very typical mother/daughter moments. "I remember one afternoon, an afternoon when she told me I didn't want to go swimming. She told me I wanted to take a nap instead. She told me I was overtired as it was. I stood there in my tie-dyed swimsuit and lime-green flip-flops, staring at her. I was 12 years old." And after defying her mother and going swimming anyway, Fran ends up with a headache, heat exhaustion, and finally the flu. Grudgingly she echoes the sentiments of every teenage girl: "I must say the reason I was most furious at my mom --- furious to the very depths of my soul --- was for being right."
The fact that Fran is still hoping for a reunion with her mother is sadly countered by Gloria's determination to remain inaccessible. Yet Gloria has the equally urgent agenda to enlighten her daughter on the generations of Mournes that inhabited both the farm in Canada and "the house" in Florida. As Gloria fills in the gaps in the family's history with a series of anecdotes on it's more nefarious members, her nightly stories become devilishly intriguing; and as the ghosts of the past become an irreparable part of the present, both mother and daughter discover much about themselves and each other.
While A HOUSE NAMED BRAZIL may not have the most appealing cast of characters, Schulman's complex presentation is a remarkable blend of phone dialogues between mother and daughter and Fran's own narration of events. And despite the fact that this is the most grossly dysfunctional family one could hope to never meet, you may find yourself impatiently anticipating that next nightly phone call; the next revelation in the astonishing saga.
Reviewed by Ann Bruns on January 22, 2011
A House Named Brazil
- Publication Date: September 5, 2000
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow
- ISBN-10: 0380977990
- ISBN-13: 9780380977994