Seven Books About How Homes Shape Our Life

Every time I move to a new apartment or house, the smell of fresh paint on the walls promises all sorts of possibilities. The perfect house, after all, is a pervasive fantasy; HGTV, magazines, and social media fool me into thinking that perfection is attainable if I just spend a little more money, arrange the dishes in the cupboard, and adjust the height of the clock just so. When I meet my new neighbors, part of me imagines that we’ll become great friends. This time, I tell myself, I’ll get it right.

Having moved four times in the past five years, I’ve become inured to the cycles of packing, unpacking, and psychological turmoil caused by an HVAC or plumbing failure, but that doesn’t mean those things have gotten any easier. Now that I feel somewhat settled in our latest house and my books have moved from boxes to shelves, I’ve gravitated toward novels in which houses are loaded with meaning for the characters who inhabit them.

These books feature houses from across the world, and people with varied motivations for moving into them. They also capture the small moments that transform a dwelling into a refuge: Think of the way catching ordinary morning light through a window can feel perfect, just because you’re experiencing it there—at home.

A House for Mr. Biswas

A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul

This epic novel by Naipaul, a Nobel laureate, revolves around one man’s lifelong search for a house to call his own. Mohun Biswas, born to a Hindu Indian family in 20th-century Trinidad, grows up relocating from one relative’s place to another. After marrying a woman he never intended to propose to, he moves into a large, communal fortress owned by his new, overbearing in-laws. The book’s pages are packed with contentious family drama, but the objects he and his wife accumulate—the “hatrack with the futile glass and broken hooks” and their beloved wooden safe that “had been awkward to varnish”—are treated lovingly, despite their flaws. The irony continues even after Mr. Biswas accomplishes his dream of owning a house, which has been on his mind since the very beginning of the book; Naipaul writes that the builder “seemed to have forgotten the need for a staircase to link both floors, and what he had provided had the appearance of an afterthought.” But the same tenderness applies to the house as to Mr. Biswas’s furniture: His house is not perfect, but it’s at least his.

[Read: Welcome to the post-pandemic dream home]

The cover of Territory of Light

Territory of Light, by Yuko Tsushima (translated by Geraldine Harcourt)

Tsushima’s narrator is looking for a fresh start after separating from her husband. At first, her choice to move with her almost-3-year-old daughter into the top floor of a four-story office building seems perfect. She assumes she doesn’t have to worry about noise complaints because half of the third floor remains vacant; they’re surrounded by windows on all sides, and the narrator praises herself for “having managed to protect my daughter from the upheaval around her with the quantity of light.” While living in this low-rent space, she performs some management duties such as locking up the shutters and being in charge of the water tower on the roof. However, problems maintaining the building ensue little by little, and their home darkens both physically and psychologically. The narrator struggles to keep up with the mounting demands of the building, her office job, and single parenthood. She wonders, “Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?” She has other options, but this building is her symbol of independence, and she wants to make it work for as long as she can. Her determination to prove to her ex-husband and judgmental neighbors that she is capable of supporting her daughter on her own in a world that seems intentionally cruel toward single mothers is strikingly resonant, as is her internal desperation.

The cover of One's Company
W. W. Norton and Company

One’s Company, by Ashley Hutson

In this surreal debut novel, Hutson’s narrator, Bonnie Lincoln, wins the lottery for an undisclosed but obscene amount of money. It’s enough for her to move from her dilapidated trailer in an unnamed American city to a remote area in the mountains, where she builds an exact replica of the apartment and town from her favorite show: the sitcom Three’s Company from the late ’70s. She lives there alone, reenacting scenes (playing each of the main characters) for an audience of nobody but herself. She cuts ties with everyone she knew before she struck it rich, but as her isolation deepens, she begins to reveal the many layers of traumatic events that led her to seek refuge in this fantasy—as she puts it, “to breach the seam between sick reality and my favorite fiction, step through, and sew up the hole behind me.” In one of the most satisfying scenes, Bonnie enters her replica for the first time and feels “the apartment’s air wash over me like a baptism, ushering me into a new state of being.”

The cover of White on White

White on White, by Ayşegül Savaş

This novel could be described as beautifully written. It would be perfectly fine to come away thinking that, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that White on White is challenging preconceived notions of elegance: It asks readers to see glamour as a veil, or even as a weapon in disguise. The book follows a young art-history scholar in an unnamed European city; she’s there for a year-long fellowship to study “nakedness” in medieval art. She stays in a minimalist, chic apartment in a quiet, tree-filled neighborhood; her landlord is a male professor whose wife stays there and uses it as an art studio from time to time. Our narrator acquiesces to this shared, ambiguous arrangement. Why wouldn’t she? The rent is low, the apartment is “expanded with light” every morning, and she admires “its sparse aesthetic.” Sharing the space with a painter also means they can casually discuss art history. Gradually, however, she finds the lines blurring between guest and resident, witness and intruder, acquaintance and friend—even aggressor and victim. The stylish facade gives way to a slow-simmering psychological-horror story that might make you rethink that gorgeous rental listing.

[Read: Stop fetishizing old homes]

The cover of Transit

Transit, by Rachel Cusk

Although it’s the second novel in Cusk’s Outline trilogy, Transit can be appreciated as a standalone work. It follows a recently divorced writer in London, Faye, who is remodeling “a bad house in a good street.” Faye and her school-age children will eventually live in this house, though it’s “virtually uninhabitable” when she buys it. But it won’t be easy: The contractor warns her of the high costs of making “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Even worse, the neighbors in the basement call her names and complain when she walks across her floor. Other novels might use the same setup to facilitate the emotional unraveling of their protagonist, but Cusk’s narrator remains stoic, even amused. Her children call the basement dwellers “the trolls,” but Faye—ever the deep thinker—says “their hatred of me was so pure … that it almost passed back again into love.” The same could be said of her horrible and seemingly endless remodeling project, which, despite the anguish it causes, has the potential to turn the house into something wonderful.

The cover of Memphis
Dial Press

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow

An intergenerational saga that follows a Black family in Memphis from the 1930s to the 2000s, focusing especially on the civil-rights movement, this gorgeous debut novel makes use of its southern house from the very first sentence: “The house looked living.” The kitchen has “the intimacy of an old Italian restaurant,” and a young girl explores the house “like a calico kitten, always hiding in the crannies of the antique furniture.” But Stringfellow does more than make the setting human; people are made into homes, too, with a woman’s hips described as “wide and welcoming as a front porch.” The chapters rotate between four women of the North family, tracking them across multiple timelines as they experience romance, tragedy, and self-discovery while orbiting the same ancestral building. This kaleidoscopic structure lends itself well to the idea that their home is a character in its own right, one that provides a physical and emotional refuge for these women, no matter what happens in their lives.

[Read: Why are American homes so big?]

The cover of Here

Here, by Richard McGuire

The premise of this graphic novel is simple: Its 300 pages contain illustrations of moments that take place in the same location—one corner of a room in a house—over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. The book is nonchronological, and the pages layer images from multiple time periods. One panel overlays Halloween parties from various decades, the attendees talking or dancing at what appears to be the same gathering; another depicts word bubbles of all the insults hurled at people who passed through the room over the years. In just one place in this one home, readers are shown a cosmic scope of humanity, expressed through kisses, dances, fights, accidents, spills, and disasters, both natural and man-made. Wallpapers change while history repeats itself. Using colorful, eclectic watercolor panels of the prehistoric landscape, and precise outlines of 21st-century furniture, McGuire argues that there is meaning in the mundane and comfort in impermanence.

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