Widows of Hamilton House by Christina Penner

Christina Penner’s Widows of Hamilton House is both a postmodern ghost story and a postmodern romance. Expect nothing typical. Penner’s beautifully rendered novel leads readers to re-examine their most staid notions of love, family, science, and spirituality. In fact, Widows of Hamilton House challenges our confidence in language itself. In Christina Penner, we find a writer who doesn’t trust words.

Ruth, the novel’s protagonist, is a young librarian who lives in Winnipeg’s Hamilton House. Soon after she takes up residence in the building’s upstairs suite, she meets Lon, a charming anesthesiologist obsessed with cleanliness. At the novel’s opening, Ruth meets Lon on her front sidewalk where he’s taking pictures of the building for his mother, Naomi, a widowed history professor. Through Lon, Ruth learns that the Hamilton House hosted world-famous séances in the1920s.

So we have Lon and Ruth – good material for a romance – and we have the Hamilton House –perfect setting for a ghost story.

Put all genre expectations aside. When tragedy befalls this trio, the relationship between Ruth and Naomi (with all the weight those biblical names carry) develops in an unconventional and taboo direction. Terms like “Romance” or “Ghost Story” no more define this novel than “heterosexual” or “homosexual” (or even “bisexual”) can capture Ruth.

The plot itself is gripping, and it alone would be worth the read, but the novel’s true strength is in what happens at the edges of plot, what transpires in the spaces between words. Penner will not let the reader rest easy with terms like love, tragedy, heterosexual, homosexual, dead, alive. How can these words be expected to capture the complexity of a life lived? How can they accurately represent the intricacy and density of experience?

“Tragic,” thinks the novel’s young widow, “that’s the word to look for in the obituary. Tragic—an innocuous word, considering the years of shock, of grey loneliness, of utter, nauseating despair it represents. Tragic—it has a way of attaching its meaning to ordinary images, forever lacing them with mourning: a police officer’s uniform, the bold red ‘emergency’ signs on a hospital, a box of microwaveable curry. Tragic—rhymes with magic, and can happen just as quickly; a sleight of the hand, a screech of the tires, a spasm of the heart, a bruise on the temple. Tragic—the lucky have no idea what it means.”

As Ruth loses faith in words, she learns to read what isn’t written. Naomi tells her “texts also tell stories in cold white breaths.” Having absorbed this lesson, Ruth writes in her journal: “I’ve also started to reread the Bible. Not the way my father read it to me. I’m reading it while listening to the spaces, and I’m stunned at what I’m hearing.”

Penner has created a story of love, desire, mourning and loss that is utterly original. It attempts nothing short of changing the way we read. Her evocative prose entices readers to linger, to revisit, to explore, to search out the meaning in the crevices between the words. It is a novel imbued with desire. The act of reading itself becomes erotic.

As soon as I finished Widows of Hamilton House, I wanted to open the front cover and begin again.

This time through I will pay more attention to the ghosts dwelling in the spaces.