Once In A House On Fire: A Memoir

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A stirring memoir by a young English woman who finds in literature the inspiration to overcome her tumultuous and abused childhood.

Andrea Ashworth, at age twenty-eight one of the youngest fellows at Oxford University, is a young woman of remarkable charm, poise, and intelligence. Her path to her present life, however, has been far from conventional, and in this striking memoir, written with courage and delicacy, she shares a story that makes her achievements all the more astonishing. Although she only vaguely remembers her father, Andrea quickly becomes aware that the dark skin she inherited from him sets her apart from her English mother and the series of stepfathers who soon enter her life. What follows is a vivid and unforgettable portrait of a family terrorized by the explosive rage of one stepfather and then another, and of a sensitive and observant child, caught in a remorseless cycle of poverty and brutality, who refuses to give into despair. For in the midst of her misery, Andrea discovers a haven in the work of writers such as Joyce and Eliot, who allow her to see a world beyond her own and set her on the path toward intellectual and artistic awakening. A portrait of the artist as a young woman, Once in a House on Fire records a life blighted by violence, then redeemed by art.

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In her engrossing memoir, Once in a House on Fire, Andrea Ashworth recalls growing up poor in a violent English household during the 1970s and 1980s. Ashworth's father drowned when she was just 5. Her mother then married a man who beat her frequently and made life miserable for the whole family. When Ashworth's mother finally got rid of him, she married a small-time criminal who also soon became violent. Throughout her childhood, the author struggled to protect her little sisters from their stepfathers and kept the family going when their mother could not function because of her injuries, depressions, and blinding headaches. Ashworth and her family moved around quite a bit, often living in other people's houses, sleeping in cots or on floors. They all suffered from the emotional and economic instability of their situation. Ashworth recalls the sunglasses her mother wore through cloudy dark English winters to conceal her bruised eyes. She also remembers sneaking out of the house one day to run through a rich neighborhood, where she paused occasionally to open the mailboxes of the wealthy and smell their comfort and safety.

Although Ashworth's story is all about loneliness and love gone wrong, the surprising thing is that this book is not always terribly sad-- there are interludes when the children have fun and in those sunny moments it seems probable that all of them, especially Andrea, will survive more or less intact. Ashworth recalls the details of her childhood vividly, in brief scenes. In one of those scenes, two sisters race down a cobbled street at breakneck speed. Each of them has one roller skate on--they are sharing. Ashworth's writing is crisp, her dialogue right to the point. This book is reminiscent of Frank Conroy's Stop-Time and Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, both classic memoirs of adolescence. --Jill Marquis

About the Author:

Andrea Ashworth was born in Manchester, England, in 1969 and was educated at Oxford and Yale. She has recently been given a fellowship at Jesus College, Oxford, where she makes her home. She is at work on her first novel.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780330450089: Once in a House on Fire

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ISBN 10:  0330450085 ISBN 13:  9780330450089
Publisher: Picador, 2007
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Picador, 2015
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9780330351911: 'ONCE, IN A HOUSE ON FIRE'

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