For most of us, it has been less than a few minutes since we’ve thought about how our childhood has impacted our life, of decisions we wished we hadn’t made, of choices that led us astray, of influences that have molded our unique realities. _A House at the Edge of Tears_ is about this universal experience of perceived childhood, only in more extreme circumstances so as to amplify its intensity.
In her book, Vénus Khoury-Ghata reveals how sometimes it is not the incidents themselves, no matter how horrid, but rather our response to or denial of them that most affects us. Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker, this is a beautifully poetic story of shame, abuse, rejection and skillful repression. It is a stunningly sad story of how, desperate for parental approval no matter how horrid the parent, we do anything we can to preserve ourselves. For Khoury-Ghata, this book is the way she unraveled the source of her pain.
_Forty years later, I throw sentences on the page in great shovelsful, with a noise of falling earth, as I dig into my shame like a grave._
Throughout the book it is as if she is breathing in a toxin, purposefully, minutely, to rid the world of it and feeling that only her body had the strength to somehow withstand it. She shares the details of her life in short, painful bursts, retreating often to her mind, her shame and her inability to help those around her.
It is always easy for an outsider, a reader, to say that the child is not to blame, that they did the best they could, that there was no way to protect the brother. As you read this book, you cry with her but see the poetic beauty of what she created from her story, you want to help her but know there is nothing to be done. Over and over again we see that Koury-Ghata’s whole life was built on blame and her perceptions of powerlessness in the face of rage. Her whole beautiful form of poetry was born of this rubbish pile, of this hatred and dishonor. She grew up too fast, and lived too much in her mind.
_I stopped playing at the age of 9._
Taking place in Lebanon during the time that led up to civil war in 1975, the setting is as unsettling as the family history she presents. Still, in the midst of everything, Koury-Ghata’s story is about questions we all ask ourselves. Why am I in this family? Why does everyone else seem so normal, so lucky?
_I envied them their frivolousness, their poodles, the sound of water splashing in their fountains…their artificial laughter, and even their sighs heavy with innuendo._
And, for Khoury-Ghata: How did I become who I am? Why do I feel a _need_ to write and will it help?
In the end, her brother is destroyed, defeated, family obstacles replaced by war and health obstacles. She survives, mostly intact, and knows she has lost him.
_Your body is like an empty violin case. Through it one can hear the wind._
Through all her loss, one thing is clear to the reader; she has survived her experience and grown from it. Ultimately, we benefit not from the details of the story itself, but from seeing Khoury-Ghata lift herself up, finally, triumphantly, through the plaintive telling of her unique story.
_Liz Lacey-Gotz is a writer, poet and owner of Zozoma Marketing, based in St. Paul._