The captivating story of an infant’s tragic death and a mother’s despair is told through dactylic fragments in A Cloth House. In this haunting, melancholy novella, Joseph Riippi, eloquently weaves this calamitous story together with a nostalgic, honest voice of an adult and the remembrance of her life at her beach front homes.
The memory of childhood is explored throughout the text. “They say it has to do with the way the brain develops, why we can’t remember the earliest bits. My first memory is naturally of that yellow sheet, feeling its silky fringe and the way it rubbed bunched and clumped in my palm like wet seaweed.” In troubled times, the narrator finds comfort in houses she assembles with this yellow sheet.
The story is meant to be an explanation to a younger sister about how her family coped with loss. When the narrator finds out her mother is pregnant with her baby sister she is given responsibility. “You are going to have to teach your little sister, our father said. He knew I loved to teach the dog the million island things there were to teach. He knew I already held so much of Beach Road North in my head, and he knew of the cloth houses I hung throughout the trees in our yard, liminally. These are truths and imaginings I could pass on. These were fireflies and fairies whose names I could share.”
The story moves from the past, “love is not as it seemed in the house at 1983 Beach Road North,” to present, cleverly using the addresses of various homes. “Sometimes these days in the evenings our father and I sit on the porch of 2013 Beach Road North to look out on the body of water that’s been the life and death of this family and Father says his philosopher things.” Memory’s threads are influenced by the stories we are told along with what we recall. “Today I remember it the way they described it; the way they described it is the way it still is, reliably.” Riippi’s poetic language enhances the dreamlike images and punctuates the ethereal mood of the story. “Life in death is memory only, familiar to imagination, a dead friend not wholly unlike the imaginary friends of childhood we encounter under sheets and in daydream daze.”