A Neglected Writer’s Masterpiece: “The House on Coliseum Street” by Shirley Ann Grau

The  neglected Southern writer Shirley Ann Grau died on August 3, at the age of 91.  She is best-known for The Keepers of the House, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965.

Her earlier novel The House on Coliseum Street (1961), set in New Orleans, is also a masterpiece. Secrets permeate the house, which is inhabited by a family of women:   20-year-old Joan Mitchell, her three half-sisters,  and her mother Aurelie Caillet, who has been married five times.  Aurelie’s current husband also lives there–until he is carted off to a mental hospital.

It is  also an astonishing Southern novel about abortion.   The heroine, Joan, numbed by the secrecy, goes mad in the style of  the narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle Is.  She doesn’t go quite as far as Jackson’s Cordelia, but she goes pretty far.

As the novel opens,  Joan is waiting for her mother to pick her up after the abortion. She has been banished to her great-aunt’s house on the Gulf coast, so no one in New Orleans will know.  Abortion is so taboo among upper-class Southerners that her great-aunt insists that Joan go to a dance the night before the procedure so one will suspect.  Joan does what she is told, but still fantasizes about Michael, a handsome professor who dated Joan’s younger sister and then asked Joan out on a whim.  He got her pregnant.

Terrible as the situation is, Joan does not want to return to the house on Coliseum Street. Built by her great-great-great grandfather, it no longer feels like home. Funds for the house are paid according to her father’s will, on the condition that a particularly hideous fountain he designed remain in the front yard.

In her altered state after the abortion, Joan felt the house wasn’t real, wasn’t there at all.  The secrecy has unhinged her.  And, typically, her mother denies it by arriving at the great-aunt’s with Joan’s sometimes boyfriend, who knows nothing about the abortion or even her date with Michael.

When Joan returns home, she reads.  She takes college courses to get out of the house, and chooses her classes at random.  (She does not even know her schedule.)  She works in the library, in a kind of attic where she is supposed to fill orders for books that are rarely requested.  And she becomes obsessed with Michael, who obviously has no interest in her.  she thinks the abortion has made her repulsive.

It takes so long to grow back, she thought; I didn’t know they were going to have to shave there.  But I didn’t know anything about it.  And anyway, as soon as the hair grows back, there won’t be a mark to show that it ever happened.  Not a mark.  And nobody will know.

Completely solitary, speaking to almost no one, she is miserable. She had fancied herself a mother–the pregnancy might have filled her emptiness.  She was so passive that she allowed her mother to make the decision on the abortion.

No wonder she is angry–and more than a little crazy.  She stalks Michael and his young girlfriend.  And…

I love the heat, humidity, and Gothicism of Southern literature.

The House on Coliseum Street is in print by Louisiana State Press and as an e-book by Open Road Media.