It takes a bold author to write about an event which is so historically hazy that even the novel’s narrator wonders, “How many people even remember it?”
That’s Karen Olsson’s thirty-something protagonist Helen Atherton, referring to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Helen’s father, Tim, was an ambitious Washington operative who got caught up in the scandal and ultimately resigned, under circumstances that still baffle Helen and her two sisters well into the first decade of the 21st century, when the bulk of this novel is set. Thankfully, All the Houses is more of a family novel than a political or historical one. The best scenes are the often awkward, occasionally touching ones between Tim (who is recovering from a heart attack) and Helen, whose efforts at screenwriting in L.A. have flopped, and who finds herself back in D.C. This puts Helen on a collision course with her older sister Courtney, with whom she has always had a tumultuous relationship. “The urge to annihilate each other had always been there,” Helen notes, “tamed over the years but never uprooted.” In fact, the family scenes in All the Houses can be so vivid and charged that much of the political and historical material pales in comparison.
Though she’s written a previous novel called Waterloo, Olsson is primarily a journalist, so much of her prose is straightforward, though there are pleasant flourishes (one aging political player has a “wrinkled face like a face etched on money”) and touching moments, including a scene featuring Helen watching Tim change a tire. Olsson’s readers will need some tolerance for adult characters who still bicker over their high school years. Nevertheless, Olsson’s portrait of family tension manages to be unsentimental and unsettling, without venturing into bleakness—even if the book’s title does come from Franz Kafka’s diaries. In the end, if you think of a nation as a kind of family, then one of Helen’s questions certainly resonates far beyond the Athertons: “Was everybody angry in every family?”