A. J. Gnuse
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-0-0630-3180-7, 336 pgs., $27.99
May 11, 2021
“Those who live in the walls must adjust, must twist themselves around in their homes, stretching until they’re as thin as air. Not everyone can do what they do.”
Maintaining invisibility in a home that is no longer yours takes endurance, flexibility, and a heart that yearns for things to be as they were—a time when the family living in your home was your own.
Nick and Laura Masons and their teenage boys, Marshall and Eddie, move into an old mansion near New Orleans, quickly discovering that the large house is in dire need of repair and renovation. What they are unaware of, however, is that the house conceals eleven-year-old Elise, who, following a tragedy that sets her adrift in a lonely world, has sought refuge in the walls of the place that contains happy memories of her parents. This house is filled with crawl spaces, cubby holes, and plenty of narrow passageways that are just big enough for Elise to fold herself into and disappear when the Masons are home and emerge and run freely when they are away.
Can a living, breathing person, even a tiny girl, really leave no trace or imprint behind for others to sense or see? Marshall and Eddie finally admit to each other that they have felt a presence in the house and have noticed missing or moved items, setting in motion the slow demise of Elise’s safe yet stagnant haven.
Girl in the Walls is the first novel from Texas author A. J. Gnuse, but he is clearly a seasoned writer. This literary fiction is rife with twists, action, and superb characterization. Family is at the heart of this story, and the innate need for camaraderie and friendship permeates the chapters as necessary elements to a healthy life. This poignant story, ultimately, is about choosing to halt life and succumb to loneliness rather than accept the unfair truth and heal a wounded heart.
Girl in the Walls is the perfect fit for any reader who enjoys a unique plot wrapped in intense literary prose and imagery. For instance, Elise becomes a part of the house itself, marking time by another family’s schedule and by a multi-bird clock chirping out the hours. The walls really do have ears and eyes as Elise sculpts her small body within the walls, slithering throughout the house, almost a ghost at the edge of vision and conscious thought for Marshall and Eddie.
Norse mythology is an interesting feature in Girl in the Walls, with Odin invading Elise’s bookish imagination as a make-shift guardian dispensing equal parts wisdom and chastisement. When Nick and Laura leave for an overnight vacation, the boys invite a man named Traust to eradicate their unwanted housemate. Traust is the Norse word for “truth,” and this man becomes a menace with his own ruinous agenda and will stop at nothing to wrench Elise out of hiding to face the truth of her existence.
The hurricane that hits the Louisiana coast becomes yet another, more effective force intent on pushing and prodding Elise to leave her exile by shedding her skin of wood, plaster, and dampness from a house that ceased to be hers long ago.
Like Elise, we often discover that the need for human companionship and love becomes stronger than the desire to hide alone in the shadows or within the dark walls of life.
A native of New Orleans, A. J. Gnuse received an MFA in fiction from UNC Wilmington and was a Kenyon Review Peter Taylor Fellow. His short stories have been published in Gulf Coast, Guernica, the Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Potomac Review, and other magazines. Girl in the Walls is his first novel. He lives in Texas.