Bibliotherapy--the word jumps off the copyright page of "Once in a House on Fire." The Library of Congress, in its wisdom, has coined a category that includes this stunning memoir. Its wisdom is strangely perceptive.
Andrea Ashworth, 29, a fellow in English at Jesus College, Oxford, came to her bookish career after a childhood where Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens served as an escape from her own Dickensian Noddyland. After Ashworth's father died when she was 5, her mother sank into a depression alleviated only by a succession of men with stolen Jaguars and chrome-plated dreams of log cabins in Canada and rose gardens in suburbia that inevitably dissipated into black eyes and broken furniture. From Manchester to Vancouver and back, Ashworth, her two younger sisters and her mother ran with, from and back to these stepfathers.
From an early age, Ashworth understood the necessity of silence and the first aid of books. "I used to go and lie on the carpet under the dining table, reading with my book propped upside-down, so that the words would seem stranger and more exciting, running back-to-front along the lines."
Books were her sanctuary and brains her ticket of leave. Yet even though Ashworth passed the exam guaranteeing her entry into the safety of a Mancunian grammar school, her mother's job cleaning bedpans at a nursing home forced her into a neighborhood where the only option was a comprehensive school. Comprehensives were the utopian dreams of an England determined to even the playing fields that had been built upon a rigid class structure. But children abhor a vacuum, and the structure that Ashworth found, a bullying order based on race and language, left little room for ambition. "If you want an image of the future," a friend reads to her from Orwell, "imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever."
It is 1984 in Ashworth's own life, and she must learn a variety of dialects in Newspeak to deal not only with her new stepfather, but with her teachers and classmates. Yet with the pigment of her half-Maltese, half-Italian father mixed with the English rose of her mother, Ashworth's skin color, which had made her the butt of racial attacks in her earlier schools, now garnered her a safe enough passage between the segregated territories of the white and black comprehensive warriors to flash some gray matter. "Ras," comes the appreciation from the West Indian back-row after Ashworth wows the Algebra teacher, "Da bitch knows how to stick it!" Two steps later--A levels and Oxford.
This is the stuff of many a '90s memoir: every unhappy family being unhappy after its own publishable fashion. Yet there is something remarkably simple and seductive about Ashworth's prose that casts a unique spell as potent as any Ancient Mariner's. Words have repaid with interest the mothering she gave them as a child. To write the complexity of love, resisting judgment on the abusers and the abused, Ashworth makes her language simple, and fashions her chronicle with reliance on the inherent drama of the battle she and her family waged against poverty and loneliness.
Although Ashworth escaped Manchester, there is no certainty that the reading of books or the writing of this one has been a wholly successful therapy. One greedily searches the tea leaves of the acknowledgments for the assurance that her mother and sisters have survived into a wished-for sequel, that this biblio has kept them alive.