Review: Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth

Andrea Ashworth’s 1998 memoir Once in a House on Fire, set in 1970s Manchester, is a moving testament to resilience, intimacy, and community in the face of horrific personal circumstances. Some critics, such as Margaret Foster, have suggested it should be compulsory reading in all inner-city schools.

“Sad but inspirational” was my mother’s judgement – she was not wrong. Having been sat idly in my garden, I was soon engrossed, transported to a dark, murky, and uncertain world. I raced through it in a few days. Once in a House on Fire reads like a true crime documentary: powerful, compelling and horrifically real.

On the inside cover we are told Ashworth was born in Manchester in 1969, and went on to become a junior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. On the next page, the book begins: “My father drowned when I was five years old.” Stark and brutal as this juxtaposition may be, it provides a neat summary of the book itself.

It is the space in between these two events – her father’s death and Ashworth’s eventual departure for Oxford 13 years later – that the memoir seeks to explore. Ashworth’s childhood was marred by poverty and violent abuse at the hands of her two stepfathers. Through it all, her relationship with her mother, suffering from chronic depression, and her two younger sisters, burns from the page as a source of hope, comfort, and strength.

The memoir reads like a novel, and yet you are forced to continually remind yourself of its traumatic reality

In this sense, the book also serves as a timely reminder of just how traumatic the domestic sphere can be: not everyone enjoys a stable family life, and not everyone is locked down with gardens and books at their disposal.

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Ashworth’s childhood stretches across Manchester. It jumps between her ever-changing temporary accommodation, shared attic rooms, and nights spent on the floors of various caring aunties’ houses. The narrative moves between Rusholme, Moss Side, Sale, Stretford, Bury and Chorlton, between multiple houses and multiple schools – all while conveying vividly how disorientating such movement was for her as a child.

Photography of North Hulme in 1970
View across North Hulme from the top of the Chatham Building (1970)

Throughout it all, though, the city itself is a constant. The saris and spices of Rusholme are seen through the awed and open eyes of the narrator. Fishing at Sale Water Park is a source of great solace on her stepfather’s better days. The early teenage trips to town are full of danger and opportunity.

Her affinity for Manchester is clear. She managed to get nearly a hundred words out of the ten letters in Manchester, she describes with childish pride, an achievement that won her a school competition and a copy of The Secret Garden.

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Books, literature and learning are key themes. School was an escape from home, and so was fiction. Her love of reading, at first Enid Blyton and later Keats, cuts through the violence and the misery. We are invited to connect such a love with the fact we are reading her memoir all these years later: it was reading and writing that “got her out” in a very real sense.

They were a source of comfort in difficult times; Ashworth reflects on the influence of an English teacher, who, “radiated a crucial sense of possibility and cast a benign, probably lifesaving, spell on me.”

There is a stoic strength to the narrative voice all the way through, and her innocent, clever humour provides welcome relief

Ashworth captures the wonder and naivety of childhood brilliantly. This is not a sociological study; the prose is tight and restrained, occasionally wry and genuinely funny. It develops, growing more assertive and exploratory, as Ashworth herself grows older. It is a remarkable skill. Memoirs hold a strange, liminal position between truth and fiction. This one reads like a novel, and yet you are forced continually to remind yourself of its traumatic reality.

Indeed, for all the trauma, the violence, the depression and the self-harm, the book is completely absent of self-pity. There is a stoic strength to the narrative voice all the way through, and her innocent, clever humour provides welcome relief. Ashworth also manages to capture the very universal nature of childhood. A primary school trip to Blue John Mines – which brought back memories of my own school visit – is a reminder that regardless of the era or circumstance, for a child fun is fun, wonder is wonder.

That said, the Manchester she describes seems very different to the one we know now: darker, with none of the glass towers and sprawling new developments present today. The Manchester of the 1970s and 1980s is also uncomfortably racist and sexist. Whilst places change, however, the things that tie them together: families, friends, community, do not. Essentially, this is what the book is about: how these structures kept her afloat in times of crisis. As a testament to the power of community, the strange frailty and resilience of the human spirit, it is a moving and pertinent read.

Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth is published by Picador. Consider buying a copy from one of Greater Manchester’s independent book shops.

The photographs featured in this article are used with permission from Manchester Art School Slide Library at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.