The House at the End of Hope Street was the surprise pick from my first Book Outlet order. I tend to like magical realism, the cover was lovely (yes, I do sometimes judge a book by its cover), and the concept seemed original, so I thought, “Hey, why not?!?” I was really looking forward to this selection, so when my box of goodies arrived the other day, I grabbed it off the stack and dove right in.
Set in England during modern times, The House at the End of Hope Street is the story of a very special house. Okay, that’s a lie. It should have been a story of a very special house, but it wasn’t. It’s really the story of the women who are drawn to live in the house and their struggles to overcome the secrets and problems which brought them there in the first place. Unfortunately, the house for which the book is named is merely an unbelievable, and at times corny, backdrop to the history of the lives within.
I think Van Praag missed her mark. Her treatment of the magical house element is very juvenile, and does not mesh well with the very mature issues of the women within. It needs to be reworked so that it’s the souls of the women who had lived there, their laughter, their tears, their experiences that give the house a special warmth, its own real magic that fills the hearts and lives of those who live there. She had a sentence or two that alluded to that, but just mentioning it doesn’t make it so. It needed to be developed, to be woven into everything, revealing itself in a Secret Garden kind of way. Instead, it was presented in a very literal, abracadabra, genie in a bottle manner.
When it gets right down to it, here’s the problem: when I think magical realism, I think Marquez, Murakami, Gaiman. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Combine that with the fact that I am concurrently reading 1Q84, and it means that it was unlikely that The House at the End of Hope Street as a work of magical realism was going to measure up. I didn’t really expect it to be on that level, but with some conscientious re-working, I think it could have been much closer than it was.
Surprisingly, this was not Van Praag’s first novel; I felt as though she had a lot she wanted to say, but didn’t really work out how to connect it all smoothly. The House at the End of Hope Street had many interesting elements and creative ideas, but they were all so very compartmentalized and disjointed. Despite being a quick and easy read, this choppiness meant that it took me a good eighty pages or so to connect with the story and the characters.
Ironically, the parts I liked most about the book were the ones that stood in stark contrast with the tone of the rest of the piece. For a passage or two, Van Praag described moments that were so dark and deeply emotional that I was completely riveted — in shock at what she had conceived. The juxtaposition between the whimsical tone of the book and the disturbing nature of these scenes was striking. I caught a glimpse of her true talent in these passages; I just wish she would have explored it further. If Menna Van Praag were to write a book in the vein of noir fiction, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it and devour it. As for reading more of her works along the lines of The House at the End of Hope Street, I’m not at all sure that I will.
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