This Is the House That Luke Built begins with Rose stepping through a wall of the house that her husband Luke was working on. He has died at sea, but through the house, Rose can temporarily see him again. Violet Browne draws on her own experience with loss and builds it into the foundations of Rose’s story as it unfolds. Despite the title and opening scene, much of the book is not about the titular house or Rose’s visits with Luke; rather, we stay close to Rose as she navigates the impact of the loss on herself and her three children, both in the immediate aftermath and over the years that follow.
Brown intersperses the immediate fallout of the disappearance of Luke’s boat with the long-term impact on Rose’s family, which effectively creates the impression of having to sort through shattered pieces in order to process the gravity of the loss. For example, in an early chapter, their daughter Emily embraces piercings and tattoos despite Rose’s disapproval, including getting a tattoo that resembles one her father had. Emily is an infant at the time of Luke’s death, and the timeline of her entire childhood and adolescence is broken up into the book’s non-linear chronology. Browne provides some guidance through the distortion by marking years at the beginning of each chapter, and the dips back into Rose’s life prior to Luke’s death disappear as the book progresses and Rose ages. Crucially, however, she is aging disproportionately to the passage of time, because every year she steps through the wall of the house to visit Luke causes her to age an extra year. This price forces its way into Rose’s reality as the accumulation of visits starts to visibly manifest in her body and health.
While the novel is described as part fable, and the encounters with Luke are the most obvious example of that aspect, the greatest strengths of This Is the House That Luke Built are grounded in its realistic depictions of Rose’s grieving process. The depiction of the ripple effect of Luke’s death over the next two decades is powerful, such as Rose’s daughter Maggie being gifted a microwave oven for her tenth birthday to help her heat food for herself, as Rose cannot always keep up with preparing food. One particularly poignant scene involves Rose scraping dinner plates into the garbage and then throwing the plates out as well, because she cannot bring herself to do the task of washing them. Mental illness manifests differently in the family – teenaged Emily overdoses on pills and middle child Liam struggles with anxiety and has a difficult time making emotional connections – but with each, Luke’s absence is deeply felt.
With such excellent delivery of the layers of memories and time passing for Rose’s family, the novel falters most in a chapter of emails towards the end. Titled “Unspoken,” Rose exchanges emails with her sisters about their respective experiences with loss and their shared agreement that they ultimately would not trade their present lives to have their loved ones back, because of how deeply they have all been shaped by their grief. This chapter immediately precedes Rose’s last visit with Luke and causes the novel’s ending to stutter with its heavy-handedness. Certainly, it is comforting as a reader to know with certainty that Rose has achieved some sort of peace more than twenty years later. However, the blatant nature of the emails seems at odds with the nuance and complexity of how Rose’s grief has been communicated in her behaviour up to this point – such as Rose never staying with men for longer than a year, moving between houses and locations, and storing a box of her most treasured mementoes in her car trunk with a letter begging any would-be thieves to keep the car, but to send her possessions back to her.
In This Is the House That Luke Built, Browne thus offers a concise and evocative portrait of a woman’s life and family, and she demonstrates great skill in delivering a story that carries a truly difficult emotional weight but is never overwhelmed by the pain it relates. The “house that Luke built” is not just the literal structure that Rose ends up leaving behind, but also the family that necessarily grows around the loss of him.
Our thanks to the publisher, Goose Lane Editions, for the review copy.