Book Review: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

5 out of 5 stars

 

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A photo from my Instagram: ohthisbook.

The title was the first thing to catch my attention with this book. The beautiful cover was the second. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the story was just as original as the title and just as beautiful as the cover.

 

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s debut novel The Smell of Other People’s Houses follows various story lines of young people growing up in 1970s Alaska. Each chapter has a different narrator and is dedicated to a different story line. There are four narrators in total. As the novel progresses, Hitchcock subtly weaves the stories together so that the characters’ lives, problems, and dreams begin to intersect. The interweaving of the stories is done beautifully. As a reader, I found it really enjoyable to pick up on the subtle interconnections between the characters and their stories.

I also particularly appreciated the unusual setting of this story, and the focus on the different native cultures in Alaska was really interesting and enlightening. It seems that native culture and personal origins are really essential elements that greatly influence the lives of these young people. Some wish to get away from their roots, while others long to be able to find theirs. The portrayal of the cultural environment is complex. It is neither entirely positive nor entirely negative, and Hitchcock does a beautiful job of demonstrating the legacy of culture as it is passed on from generation to generation.

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Although the book could be considered a YA novel, I don’t feel that the YA label is appropriate for this book. It is much more than just a YA book. This is more a coming-of-age story. Nearly everyone in the book has a moment of clarity that leads to a sort of emotional or personal evolution. The book follows Ruth’s story particularly closely and there are multiple moving moments as she deals with exceptional hardship at a very young age. There were so many passages in this book that went straight to my heart. The romantic relationships are not of the typical sappy or supernatural YA variety. Romance is not the focus of this book, and where it does appear, it exists in small and believable doses. It is much more about love on a familial level, even a human level.

Hitchcock writes in a beautiful style. The writing is not complicated, but there are instances where she puts words together in a singularly beautiful way. She is skilled at writing believable characters with very different personalities. Bunny and Lily are fun-loving and carefree, while the older characters such as Dumpling, Alyce, and Ruth show real emotional complexity as they attempt to reconcile their own dreams with reality and with their families’ expectations.

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The book was a very quick read. My ebook copy was 272 pages long, but it read very quickly. On the whole, I really loved this book. I would recommend this for people who are looking for a book that provides an escape to a world that is most likely far removed from their own. If you want to read about native culture, about remote areas, or are looking for a particularly unique coming-of-age story, I highly recommend you give this book a try.

I was provided a Netgalley review copy of this ebook by Faber & Faber in exchange for an honest review.