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Book review: The Aunts’ House by Elizabeth Stead (UQP)

Set in Sydney in 1942, The Aunts’ House is the charming story of a young recently orphaned girl named Angel who is sent to live in a boarding house run by an acquaintance of her mother, Missus Potts. When Mrs Potts realises that her mother left little in her will, she begrudgingly accepts Angel’s presence in the house in exchange for chores.

The only other people who play a significant role in Angel’s lives are her aunties who live together a tram-ride from the boarding house. They are initially unwelcoming, but Angel sets her sights on endearing herself to them. Every Sunday, Angel travels on her beloved trams to the Aunts’ house, where she gratefully accepts any leftover food that is offered to her. She eventually wins over Elsa, with Clara taking longer to warm to her lonely niece.

Angel’s struggle for affection is heart-breaking, as the adults around her prove unwilling to accept her, and openly criticise her.  Others take advantage of her lack of support. And so, Angel turns to art for comfort and a sense of belonging.

Eventually, a guest who recognises and appreciates Angel’s creativity and passion for life arrives at the boarding house, signalling the start of better times.

Written by Elizabeth Stead, the niece of Australian literary great, Christina Stead, The Aunts’ House is quirky and endearing, and doesn’t shy away from some difficult issues of child neglect and abuse.

Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the seriousness of these issues with the matter-of-fact approach that Angel takes to her situation, telling those she meets that she has never been a child. However, through a combination of Angel’s gutsiness and verve for life, with all of its music and colour, Stead manages to achieve a balance between the disturbing and the uplifting, finally bringing about a satisfying conclusion for this feisty little girl.

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