The Chemist’s House by Jude Higgins

Reviewed by Cherry Potts

Jude Higgins has created a particular rendition of the universal experience of childhood and adolescence, a microcosm explored with a light but thorough touch, and in particular through taste and smell.

Thirteen stories in only twenty-eight pages, set in and around the Chemist’s House of the title, these are glancing episodes in the life of a girl growing up in mid Wales, told chronologically. I felt a bit as though I was dipping at random into a novel and reading a page here, a couple of pages there. I laughed aloud several times, and there are occasional brief excitements, puttering out as they do in real life. I found that fading out a little annoying initially, because I want more (this is good stuff, tell me what happened!) but Higgins manages to save it, with an acerbic backward glance, so that I began to trust her and go with the flow.

The language is enjoyable, taking on the cadences of poetry at times and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. A pivotal story in the collection (for me, anyway) involves a mishearing of the lyrics of the National Anthem, and the immortal opening:

Before she was married, my grandmother Louisa kept a pet monkey, which would sit on her head and groom her hair while she practised her scales. She played violin in the tearoom at a department store and that’s where she met my grandfather who used to visit the food hall to sell condiments.

The house is a character in itself, perhaps even the hero, living on beyond the family, haunting the narrator and retrospectively giving importance to the most minor incident. Male relatives – Brother, Father, and especially Grandfather – are paid the most attention, Mother barely present except in an angry pointing at clocks and banging on walls, or ineffective advice and unspoken disappointment.

The small dramas of domestic life – the squabbles, the rules broken, misunderstandings and the opportunities missed are all given an edge by the claustrophobia of living ‘above the shop’ and the fact of the poisons stored in forbidden attics and cellars, waiting to be tasted and stolen, by a reckless girl child who can’t resist a dare, be it from her brother, determined to push her into trouble, or later, her college boyfriend, intent on recreating Coleridge’s opium dreams.