Melissa Ginsburg’s debut novel, Sunset City, was released in 2016 to great acclaim and amassed a cult following of fans who can still recall the joys of discovering a skilled wordsmith at the dawn of her crime writing career. It has been a hot minute, but 2021 has brought us another gem from Ginsburg, The House Uptown.
Just as she did for Houston in the earlier novel, The House Uptown allows New Orleans to come alive, almost as a character itself. The atmosphere of this truly unique city permeates every page of this novel. Melissa Ginsburg’s background in poetry is also fully on display once again. Every word choice in The House Uptown is considered and strategic, designed to elicit the perfect emotional response from the reader. And Ginsburg is not so much interested in the larger, grand emotions, but instead wants to dig deep for the more nuanced reactions, those tiny tells and held breathes, which serve to make humans such complex entities.
The House Uptown is the story of fourteen-year-old Ava and her Grandmother, Lane. Between these two is the ghost of Louise – mother and daughter to these formidable females, respectively. Though not a literal ghost, Louise’s presence is felt throughout the novel, affecting every decision – sometimes willfully guiding and at other times an unexpected impediment.
Ava has come to live with her Grandmother who is a celebrated painter. Lane possesses all those stereotypical qualities one might associate with artist types: aloofness, substance abuse, and perfectionism; but Lane is also losing her grip on reality, suffering confused moments and reliving long-ago memories as though they were yesterday. One particularly persistent incident is one involving Lane’s lover and his son – something that happened back in 1997 when Louise was but a child still.
Lane wants to make a connection with Ava, her last surviving family member, but the girl is dealing with the trauma of losing her mother and having to relocate to an unfamiliar place. As with any teenager, Ava’s rebellious nature and independent streak are strong, but is that too much for Lane to deal with given her mental state?
Circling Lane and Ava are two men who will alter the course of their lives. Oliver is the gay man who serves as a pseudo-caretaker for Lane. He carries his own burdens and must fight off the resentment of having Ava appear out of nowhere to upset the previously placid household. Lastly, there is Arthur Guidry, a man running for city council, who just might hold the key to the past for Lane and thereby be the answer to the future for Ava.
There is a crime (or crimes) at the center of The House Uptown, but this novel is very much a character study about the long-term affects of trauma, healing the scars of the past, and understanding the complexities of human nature. How one decision made can have effects that reverberate long past the formative moment. Melissa Ginsburg’s streamlined writing style keeps this book under 250 pages – almost making it a direct infusion into the reader’s brain. For the brief time it takes to consume The House Uptown, readers are wholly-invested in each character and when the inevitable tragic end is upon them, they will hurt (and heal) just as the characters do.
Melissa Ginsburg may not be the fastest writer in the crime fiction field, but if she continues with output this strong, readers will gladly wait years for each new novel.