September 24, 2018

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Bleak house

Creepy, gut-wrenching stories trouble comforting notions of home

The Pre-War House and Other Stories collects 24 of Alison Moore’s short stories, a number of them award-winning, originally published between 2000 and 2012.

Moore, a British writer, has published four novels, the first of which, The Lighthouse, was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. The Pre-War House and Other Stories was first published in the U.K. by Salt in 2013, where it was critically well-received.

Moore’s stories are centred on domestic situations that seem ordinary at first glance, but whose surfaces mask deeper menaces and more profound fractures.

The tone of the collection is set from the first story, When the Door Closed, It Was Dark. In this story, Tina, a young woman from an unnamed foreign country, comes to live with a family in England as their au pair.

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The Pre-War House and Other Stories collects 24 of Alison Moore’s short stories, a number of them award-winning, originally published between 2000 and 2012.

Moore, a British writer, has published four novels, the first of which, The Lighthouse, was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. The Pre-War House and Other Stories was first published in the U.K. by Salt in 2013, where it was critically well-received.

Dan Norcott photo</p><p>Nothing is exactly as it seems in Alison Moore’s stories.</p>

Dan Norcott photo

Nothing is exactly as it seems in Alison Moore’s stories.

Moore’s stories are centred on domestic situations that seem ordinary at first glance, but whose surfaces mask deeper menaces and more profound fractures.

The tone of the collection is set from the first story, When the Door Closed, It Was Dark. In this story, Tina, a young woman from an unnamed foreign country, comes to live with a family in England as their au pair.

When she first enters the family’s apartment, she notes a gap between her initial perception of the place and a more hidden reality: "The narrow hallway into which she stepped was packed with sunshine — the wallpaper and the carpet were luridly colourful — but when the door closed, it was dark."

The contrast between Tina’s initial impression of the lurid brightness of the entrance and the subsequent darkness she has to feel her way through amplifies the violence and mistrust that permeate the situation.

More than that, though, the awkwardness of having to move through an unfamiliar space without being able to see mirrors the increasingly uncomfortable mental distortions Tina adopts in order to navigate the untenable situation in which she finds herself.

Deception and distortion are, indeed, the scaffolding that supports domestic life in this collection.

In Wink, Wink, the fractures in the narrator’s family are revealed by her parents’ increasingly consequential lies and elaborate secret-keeping: "It’s like they’re playing a game, seeing how many secrets they can stack up against one another. They both do it: ‘Don’t tell your father, it will only worry him.’ ‘Your mother doesn’t need to know; it’s our little secret.’"

The secrets pile up throughout the story. Pound coins are given to the narrator by one parent or the other; her father allows her late-night television marathons; her mother slips her sips of gin and orange before bed; each of her parents has a secret life. Then, the biggest secret of all is revealed: none of it is really a secret. The family’s domestic life is upheld by each person pretending not to know the others’ secrets.

Nothing and no one are exactly as they seem in Moore’s stories, and that tension amplifies the undercurrent of insecurity that runs through many of the stories in this collection. Deaths and disappearances, violence and stalking, doubles and ghosts, memories either fabricated or lost: all of these pull at the fabric of what the characters know of their existences.

Moore deploys these elements in various intensities and to a range of emotional effects in the collection, from the tender and melancholic to the spine-chilling to the stomach-churning — and, at her most effective, all of these at once.

The stories in The Pre-War House and Other Stories are delightfully creepy and gut-wrenching. Shot through with violence and the threat thereof, Moore’s stories invert the cultural script that home is a secure place and threats come from outside the domestic sphere.

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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