The Yellow House is a work that refuses to capitulate to your impatience – not out of an arrogant self-indulgence, but out of care. She seems to say: You will not get your entertainment at my people’s expense. This strikes me as rare, even brave. Many writers, or at least this writer, feel alienated from their family. But here is a writer who appears fully enmeshed in a family, in a clan, a system of interdependence and responsibility. One of the remarkable traits of The Yellow House, which makes it something larger than a personal narrative, is that the story is not fashioned from Broom’s voice alone.
Research and anecdote are both shallower in the later part of the book, giving way to a vague and guarded introspection. There are difficulties inherent to writing memoir before the age of forty. But the stories of Broom’s family are piercing even in outline: for eleven years, one brother continued to hang out on the plot where the Yellow House had stood, mowing the empty lawn and drinking beers at a small table under the fizzling streetlights, waiting for Louisiana to buy out the land. And Broom’s mother is last seen settled with relatives, but “still hoping one day to have my own house, a personal house for Ivory”.
The Yellow House is not a book to consult for political prescriptions. At times it might leave the reader wondering whether the inner workings of municipal governance could ever really be elusive to quite the degree that Broom suggests.
Without any outline of the nature of relations between the state and private enterprise, her conclusions about what ought to have been done differently can seem merely wishful. But the memoir remains an engrossing account of the concrete realities, and dangerous chimeras, of what its author resonantly calls “an unequal, masquerading world”.
In precise, dovetail-jointed sentences Broom writes beautifully about interior spaces of all kinds. The house comes alive, but so too, for example, does the psychology behind her grandmother’s impeccable appearance: “Sometimes elegance is just … a way to keep the flailing parts of the self together.” She resists the picturesque, describing instead the crime and police corruption of 1990s New Orleans. There is an unflinching clarity, especially as she details the house’s decline. Cockroaches move in, while rats with a taste for symbolism eat a sash she was awarded at school for academic achievement.
When Broom returned to New Orleans to research the book, one of her brothers feared that the project would ‘disrupt, unravel and tear down everything the Broom family has ever built’. By reconstructing the house with words, however, Broom not only shores up her family history but reclaims an ancestral narrative. ‘Who has the rights to the story of a place? she asks. Part oral history, part urban investigation, The Yellow House goes beyond the perimeters of memoir: it is an exposition of the fault lines under the American dream.