Open House: A Life in Thirty-Two Moves by Jane Christmas (Patrick Crean Editions, HarperCollins 2020), softcover. Reviewed by Debra Martens.
Because I’ve moved house a lot, I was intrigued to see what Jane Christmas had to say about the emotional travails of leaving the home you’d created (however temporary) for another, of the exhaustion of sorting stuff into and out of boxes (an exhaustion peculiar to moving house), of finding what you need in the new place. Her humorous book, Open House, does touch on the pain of leaving behind friends and on the social awkwardness of being the outsider caused especially to children by constant moving. Mostly, however, it is about the adult activities of house shopping and renovation.
While Jane Christmas does not enumerate her 32 moves — or if she did I was too absorbed in the story to notice — she does begin with her childhood moves. First comes the long-lens look at her place of birth, Toronto, and its postwar housing boom. “The urgency for progress was dizzying, as if the city had just discovered a cache of mortar that had to be used up.” (p. 15) There is a short history of Don Mills. Then we close in on the person with whom Christmas disagreed but ultimately sees as a soulmate: her mother. Her mother has no patience for the author’s loss of friends when they move: solution — make new ones. The hypercritical mother preaches resilience, and the longest she allows her family to settle in any one place is seven years in Don Mills. This same woman greets suicide attempts by both husband and daughter as embarrassing. Christmas’s mother embraced change and called it adventure.
The story that drew me in was of Christmas’s most recent move, which is the core of the book. What happens when someone who enjoys moving house (I still find that hard to fathom) is married to someone who would be happy to stay in the same flat all of his life? “I see moving as a natural, exciting adventure; he sees moving as a high-ranked indicator in the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory.” (p. 6)
Open House is not only engaging, but also wrenching. Christmas snags the reader with funny lines from the get go, such as “But give me a pencil and a floor plan and, oh, baby, I can reach ecstasy before you can say ‘stud wall’.” (p. 3) And “A house can smell desperation on a potential buyer as surely as you can smell damp on it.” (p. 3) She explains why she is unhappy in their current abode in Brixham, in Devon, a lovely seaside town that turns out to be overrun by terrorizing seagulls and tourists. By Chapter 4 the husband has agreed to the unthinkable — to move again.
And so they buy a Victorian terrace in the neighbourhood of Easton in Bristol, not the house of their dreams, but a house with possibilities. The husband compares the neighbourhood to that of his old stomping grounds, which he wishes he’d never left. Christmas writes of feeling guilty, reckless, of feeling “the sheer marital exhaustion of it all.” (p. 72) The reader presses on, wondering if this expat will still have a husband by the end of the book.
Renovations ensue. Christmas describes the meditative aspects of stripping wallpaper, and how she taps secret sources of strength to shift rubble. There is an amusing bit about her dead mother helping her choose paint colours, and another drawn out comedy of who she thinks the previous tenant was compared to what the neighbours tell her about this occupant. She muses about her marriage and threatens it with statistics on divorce during renovations. Her mind dips into the past, analyses family and friendships. Above all, she thinks about the nature of home.
Christmas, on feeling at home in England: “I have always agreed with the sentiment that the place where we are born and the place where we belong are not always one and the same.” (Open House, p. 102)
“Of all the homes I have lived in, working on this English home has made me think most deeply about what home is; where I belong, and whether I even have a need to belong anywhere.” (p. 279) — Jane Christmas, Open House
Her conclusion on home and belonging is not, as you might expect, a place. But for that, you need to read the book.
Jane Christmas writes from her home in Bristol, where she has lived since 2017. Her memoir about living as a nun, And Then There Were Nuns, was reviewed for Canadian Writers Abroad by Isabel Huggan. Her memoir about travelling Italy with her mother, Incontinent on the Continent, was published in Canada by Greystone Books in 2009. Open House: A Life in Thirty-two Moves (HarperCollins 2020), was on the Toronto Star and Vancouver Sun bestseller list for Canadian nonfiction in April 2020.