by Jenny Jaeckel
The House of Rougeaux is an epic multi-generational work of literary fiction taking the reader from the slave plantations of 1700s Martinique through to 1960s Philadelphia by way of Montreal and New York City.
I read the standalone sequel to House of Rougeaux earlier this year (Boy, Falling)*. Personally, I could not wait to discover the foundations of the immensely interesting Rougeaux family and, overall, House of Rougeaux does not disappoint.
Ms Jaeckel’s writing is masterful; writerly, poetic and sophisticated. It’s also very easy to overlook the level of research that this novel incorporates. The effortless ease of the prose disguises the amount of social-historical and cultural detail that is subtly woven through the narrative and makes House of Rougeaux a really transporting read, sweeping you up and along into the history of this proud, resilient yet vulnerable clan and community.
Guillaume and Eleanor were standout portrayals for me, both so emotionally resonant and convincingly poignant. Their chapters were the strongest in the novel. I found the beginning of the book slightly dense; It was a little over-ambitious and I did struggle to connect with Abeje and Adunbi at the start.
However, as the novel progresses, I understood the plangency of their legacy. The folkloric, almost biblical overtones that are present in the early chapters reinforce this heritage as does the strong contrast between the earlier characters and their more modern counterparts. The phrase ‘lay it down’ that echoes through Eleanor from her forebears I found incredibly powerful in the context, despite its simple sentiment.
Occasionally, I thought the novel could have been structured a little differently, it’s a touch disjointed in places, but this is a debut novel and once it settles, it flies, subtly exploring strong issues and themes; racism, misogyny, homosexuality, and the power of belief and spiritual healing, among others.
What sets the book apart from a lot of familial sagas is that it reads like a memoir; a reader must be able to invest in wonderfully realised individuals but you genuinely feel that Ms Jaeckel is writing about her own family. It’s so intimate, each character facet laid bare. Consequently, you feel deeply involved in these peoples’ everyday lives, their innermost thoughts, and emotions.
House of Rougeaux is a beautifully written and fantastically absorbing novel. Highly recommended.
*You can read my review of Boy, Falling here.