“Home is where the heart is” is how the oft-quoted phrase runs, and, as A.J. Gnuse notes in his debut novel, Girl in the Walls, home is a symbol for much more than that. Home is a living, breathing creature that is just as important as the people inhabiting it, openly shedding its skin to the studs, a vector of change, and yet a gatekeeper of memory. “A home is always yours, even after you’ve gone and made others,” he writes, “a planet in stable orbit.” Girl in the Walls focuses on inner healing, letting go, and friendship, and questions what a home is truly made of.
Set in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana in the early 2000s, Girl in the Walls follows the Mason family, a middle-class family renovating an old mansion house near the river levee. The Mason family consists of the father, Mr. Nick, the mother, Mrs. Laura, and their two sons; the oldest is a high schooler named Marshall who works part time at a car wash, and the youngest is his thirteen-year-old autistic-coded brother, Eddie. However, the Masons fall secondary to the character who is the beating heart of the home incarnate — Elise.
Elise is an eleven-year-old girl living in the walls, and attic, of the Mason family home, though she hasn’t always. The house, at one point, belonged to herself and her parents, though due to several issues they were forced to move. However, with her parents’ unfortunate demise, Elise returns, finding it’s the only place that ever felt like home to her — even so, there is one problem: The Masons have already moved in.
Living her life mostly by night and while the Masons are away during the daytime, Elise is a ghost in the skeleton of the house. She is described as having “turned herself into the dust in the walls. As long as she hid, she was incorporeal. She was the walls, the flood-water, each shift and sound and movement in every part of the house.” Though she does very well in hiding herself, she is far from infallible.
Girl in the Walls couldn’t come at a better time, when quarantine is either still in full swing or starting to wane, and we are all intimately aware of our homes; how they smell, feel, sound. Privacy has since come into greater focus, and Gnuse’s novel is apropos for turning it all on its head. Girl in the Walls poses the question — how well do we really know where we live?
The piece hyper-focuses on small moments with Elise and the Mason family through a third-person omniscient narrator, which slows the pace of the novel considerably, though in this stillness there is an appreciation of the finer details. It holds close the quiet, and brings to heart the often dangerous quality of Elise’s life in the home: “She pictured herself, for a second, as Atlas, holding the world still…. Her muscles in her hands and fingers ached. But this was her old game, she told herself. There were rules. If she didn’t move, he’d never find her.”
When the pace does pick up, it sprints to the opposite end of the spectrum — highlighting the already tense atmosphere with loud, bombastic action, carrying the story into the realm of the downright terrifying, yet incredibly addicting.
Girl in the Walls is intricate, and Gnuse tugs the seemingly insignificant into the spotlight and holds it there. He makes the forgotten and easily brushed away threads of the story crystal clear, while entwining a narrative of growing up and learning to live with, while not clinging to, trauma. It is a story focused on the psychological without prescribing itself as such; it entertains while providing a mirror to analyze the fears that make us leave our lights on just a little bit longer each night.
Girl in the Walls
By A.J. Gnuse
Published May 11, 2021