Like a House on Fire, by Caroline Hulse.
Stella and George Mandani are getting a divorce – for reasons as diverse as unforgivable untidiness on George’s part (constantly leaving kitchen cupboards and doors open, thus driving Veterinary surgeon Stella into a permanent state of frothing-mouth resentment, just as one example), but they have decided not to announce the fact just yet because it is her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary; her mum Margaret Foy has gone to an enormous amount of trouble to plan the weekend, beginning with an Original Murder Mystery Party written by Margaret, and all parts played by family members, favoured friends and neighbours, but unbeknownst to Margaret, there are several hitches and glitches waiting to spoil what should be her perfect weekend.
First, her husband Tommy has just lost his retirement job at the local supermarket for not being Politically Correct: his breezy statement ‘Cheer up, it may never happen’ was taken amiss by a woman in a bad mood and, rather than enrol in a course to help one avoid today’s hidden minefields of unwitting offense he has handed in his notice. Helen, Stella’s ‘Perfect’ older sister is feeling anything but: her 10 year-old daughter is turning into a bit of a rebel – a rebel with a cigarette lighter! Add to that the fact that Margaret’s favourite child, gay son Pete is VERY late, which is worrying because he has a starring role in the drama (being the favourite this is only fair), so when should one get the Show On The Road? It is vexing, to say the least.
But what is most irritating is that there is another cloud on Margaret’s horizon: on the following Monday she is due to start Chemotherapy for a cancer that looks pretty terminal so, being Margaret the Controller of Everything, she has decided not to start the treatment: what’s the point in feeling sick enough to WANT to die, when she will die anyway. She might as well feel as healthy as she can for as long as she can and chemo can just go and get forgotten about. Except that secrets have a way of revealing themselves whether one wants them to or not, including George and Stella’s decision to part – not to mention what happens to Helen’s daughter and her cigarette lighter. The weekend definitely ends with a bang!
Ms Hulse has written a sparkling novel of the times – I’m sure we can all identify with the myriad family problems faced by the Foy family and their singular ways of dealing with them. She has achieved the perfect balance between humour, seriousness and every other emotion in between: a perfect Christmas read. SIX STARS.