Book Review: The Smell of Other People’s Houses


Alaska, 1970: growing up here is like nowhere else.

Ruth wants to be remembered by her grieving mother.
Dora wishes she was invisible to her abusive father.
Alyce is staying at home to please her parents.
Hank is running away for the sake of his brothers.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. Because if we don’t save each other, how can we begin to save ourselves?

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s extraordinary debut is both moving, and deeply authentic. These intertwining stories of love, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation on the edge of America’s Last Frontier introduce a writer of rare talent.

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Slowly, like warmth after frost nip. All that new blood will seep back into those frozen spots until it reaches the secret place where you’ve hidden all the broken pieces – shards, really – and you start to move them around, maybe fit them back into place.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses is the intertwining story of four Alaskan teenagers; Ruth who has to deal with the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy whilst living in a strict Catholic household; Dora whose drunk and abusive parents have driven her to another household to which she desperately wants to belong; Alyce who dreams of being a ballerina but must sacrifice those dreams to spend time with her Dad; and Hank who decides that it is safer for him and his brothers to run away than to stay with the man his mother has recently married.

The story is told through Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank’s point of view; the chapters are in a continuous loop of each character, however this structure didn’t feel rigid, and permits the story to unfold naturally. I think the use of multiple POV enhances this story, I really liked that we got to see each of the different situations from more than one perspective, because it made me feel immersed into what was happening. It also allowed a contrasting look into each of the characters storylines and revealed things about them that might not have come across otherwise.

Another thing that I love about this book is how the stories interconnect. They have been excellently composed, whilst you can tell that there has been a lot of thought put into it, the interactions never feel forced. It is amazing how the stories fit together; it isn’t always with a big fanfare but in subtle ways that seem realistic. Even characters that make the smallest of appearances can make a big impact on other parts of the narrative.

Even though this book is set in the 1970’s I believe that it’s got a very timeless quality, apart from some references to specific events, there was so much to relate to and at times I forgot it wasn’t a modern day story. I think that’s because a lot of the points covered in the book are still somewhat relevant to today’s society.

I am a cliché and a statistic all in one. And nothing says that louder than this moment, standing in the Salvation Army completely alone, looking for clothes that six of my closest friends probably could have all fitted into at once. Except I don’t have six close friends. I’m getting close to having no friends at all.

There are surprisingly a lot of difficult subjects explored in this book, I won’t go into details, however you don’t feel harrowed by it; even when the characters are going through their worst there is an undercurrent of hope. They become empowered by what they are going through and I think that this is what keeps the hopeful feeling going throughout the book. I also feel that even though there are these serious topics in the story they aren’t being used in a sensational way or just as a tool to further the narrative, they are there as part of the characters growth. Whilst some of these issues weren’t always central to Ruth, Dora, Alyce or Hank they weren’t glossed over, which again made them feel genuine.

Admittedly I knew very little about Alaska and its cultures before reading Other People’s Houses but I love to discover new things so I’m really glad that I picked it up. Being able to get a glimpse into a way of life that I didn’t know a lot about really added to the experience of this book. Whilst I did get a bit lost in the races of the characters; whether they were native and of what tribe; it was so well written that I felt like I could be transported there. The descriptive language used to show us the settings was magnificent, so vivid and unique. From the very beginning the writer sets an exquisite aesthetic tone that continues the whole way through and gives you an affinity with both the characters and the place. There were moments that were both so beautiful and sombre that it made me cry.

It feels like my best friend has just skipped a pebble across the glassy surface of my soul. If you chopped open my body, you’d see every jealous little wave as it slapped against my sternum.

This book is a perfect winter read, the way the cold setting is brought to life makes you crave getting wrapped up and sitting by a fire. I would be surprised if you didn’t read this book and fall in love with this amazing world.


Thank you to Faber and Faber and Netgalley for the review copy of this book.

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