Melissa Ginsburg’s The House Uptown is an emotional coming-of-age novel about a young girl who goes to live with her eccentric grandmother in New Orleans after the death of her mother.
Before I share an extract, kindly supplied by Flatiron Books, here’s the book blurb to give a flavour of the story.
Ava, fourteen years old and totally on her own, has still not fully processed her mother’s death when she finds herself on a train heading to New Orleans, to stay with Lane, the grandmother she barely remembers.
Lane is a well-known artist in the New Orleans art scene. She spends most of her days in a pot-smoke haze, sipping iced coffee, and painting, which has been her singular focus for years. Her grip on reality is shaky at best, but her work provides a comfort.
Ava’s arrival unsettles Lane. The girl bears an uncanny resemblance to her daughter, whom she was estranged from before her death. Now her presence is dredging up painful and disturbing memories, which forces Lane to retreat even further into her own mind. As Ava and Lane attempt to find their way and form a bond, the oppressive heat and history of New Orleans bears down on them, forcing a reckoning neither of them are ready for.
Ava’s cab parked in front of a wooden house, painted green. She paid and carried her bags to the front porch. The windows were leaded glass, wavy and old, distorting the reflection of the trees and telephone wires. Ava knocked.
After a minute a man opened the door. He was young, late twenties. “Yes?” he said abruptly, irritation in his voice. He held a drink in his hand. Beyond him in the fading light were high ceilings, crown molding, Oriental rugs.
“Hi,” Ava said. “Is this where Lane lives?”
“Who are you?” he said.
“I’m Ava. I’m her granddaughter.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “What’s this about?”
“Is she here?” Ava said.
“You got ID or something?”
She shook her head. “I’m only fourteen.” Kaitlyn’s warnings about strange men echoed through her head. “Who are you?” she added.
“Wait here,” the man said.
He closed the door, leaving Ava on the porch. After a minute he came back and opened it again. “You better come in, I guess,” he said.
She lugged her case over the threshold. A woman stood in the middle of the room—graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, a paint-stained dress. She looked old enough to be a grand-mother, but unlike any grandmother Ava knew. The woman stared openly at Ava.
“Louise,” the woman said.
“No,” Ava said. “I’m Ava. Are you Lane?”
“Lane, what the hell is going on?” the man said.
“God, you look like your mother,” the woman said.
“Really?” Louise had been beautiful, and Ava thought herself plain, awkward.
“Okay, god,” the man said. “Let’s go sit down. I’m Oliver, by the way. I could use another drink.”
Ava followed them through a living room, dining room, and a dark hall to a kitchen at the back. Lane sat down at a wooden table. On it lay a spiral sketchbook, an empty glass, an ashtray and small wooden pipe.
“What’ll it be?” he said to Ava. “Diet Coke, water?”
Lane spoke. “I haven’t seen you in ten, eleven years.”
“I don’t remember it,” Ava said. “I was too little, I guess.”
“Yes,” Lane said. “You’ve grown.”
It was nearly dark out, the kitchen in shadows. Oliver switched on the light. He poured Ava a glass from the tap and fixed drinks for Lane and himself, brought everything to the table.
“Louise is dead,” the woman said. She was speaking as though she had forgotten and suddenly remembered a piece of trivia.
“Yes,” Ava said.
“That your mom?” Oliver asked.
“Shit,” he said.
He studied Lane’s face, saw a quietness overtake her, like a scrim behind her eyes. He recognized that expression—she shut down sometimes, shut people out. She wasn’t going to say much else.
“You eat?” he said to Ava.
“No,” she said.
“Alright, I’ll go pick something up. Give y’all some time.”
Oliver left them, drove to the Rouses, and ordered red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken at the deli counter. He picked up a tray of pecan bars and stood in line. Lane hadn’t told him about this visit. Hell, he didn’t even know she had a granddaughter. Things slipped Lane’s mind more and more frequently, but mostly they were of little consequence. Something this big—the daughter died and she hadn’t told him? When had this visit been arranged? He paid for the food and drove back slowly through the neighborhood, taking the long route to avoid the worst pot-holes. He had a bad feeling about all of this, but he would do what he always did—clean up the mess. He would take care of Lane, whatever she needed.
Melissa Ginsburg is the author of the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost, published by Four Way Books, and the chapbook Arbor, from New Michigan Press. Her poems have appeared in Field, Pleiades, Jubilat, Denver Quarterly, and other magazines. She holds a BA in English from the University of Houston and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Originally from Houston, Texas, Melissa now lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi.