It’s not often a contemporary novel is narrated by an inanimate object. In the 18th century, this convention was quite a bit more popular, referred to as “it-narratives” or “object narratives.” Francesca Momplaisir takes this classic form and combines it with contemporary issues in My Mother’s House, narrated by the titular dwelling.
When we first meet the house, called La Kay, it is describing its own suicide by fire. La Kay wants to burn itself down because of a man named Lucien. Decades before the fire, Haitian immigrant Lucien moved to Queens, New York, with his young wife, Marie-Ange. Now she is dead, and Lucien, elderly and frail, is estranged from their three daughters. Amid the fire, Lucien swears that “his girls” are in the house’s fireproof safe room. Is Lucien mistaken in his addled state?
Though we first meet Lucien when he’s weakened, we learn soon enough that he’s not a good man. Momplaisir shows how Lucien’s wickedness and perversity allow him to exploit other Haitian immigrants, especially women. In this way, Momplaisir illuminates the darker side of immigrant life, in particular Haitian immigrant life, with parents separated from their children—by the parents’ own design—and people with expired green cards or visas who descend into the perilous underground economy or are otherwise forced to live in sketchy circumstances. There is also the ghastly legacy of colorism, in which light-skinned Haitians like Lucien are valued over those of darker hues. La Kay watches Lucien’s crimes for years, and even after it sets itself on fire, it still watches and waits.
Still, Momplaisir makes you feel an ember of sympathy for Lucien, whose sole refrain since childhood has been “I am nothing.” He’s nothing without his wife, his daughters, the women whom he uses, discards and then reels back in. He seems buffeted by love, an emotion whose demands he can’t understand or fulfill. Yet these women survive against terrible odds.
In Momplaisir’s novel, cracks of light are always there to penetrate the dark.