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Alice Cavanagh on old photographs and the true story that inspired The House That Made Us

Alice Cavanagh on old photographs and the true story that inspired The House That Made Us

I love old photographs.

That’s hardly a controversial opinion; I think most people love leafing through those big, unwieldy albums to be found in grandparents’ houses, full of white-bordered snaps of now-elderly aunties and uncles when they were skinny young things. Photograph albums are edited, spare and intriguing, unlike the glut of images in my phone.

My book, The House That Made Us, centres on a very special album. An anniversary photograph taken each year in the same spot, outside the house ‘our’ couple, Mac and Marie, move into on their wedding day. Theirs is a long marriage, with much drama, but all of it underpinned by a simple, seamless love.

And who are the two people who have found the album, and use the photographs to build a picture of a family they don’t know?

My daughter, eighteen years old, knows our albums by heart, sepia faces giving way to technicolour polaroid. There has been great upheaval for all of us in the last few years, but for us the pandemic was overshadowed by the death of my husband. My girl lost her daddy, but she found him again in the albums. All those moments frozen in time are part of his legacy, and we fumble for them when we fear we forget how he laughed, or the way his hair fell across his forehead.

But where are the albums of my daughter’s life? Everything is online, apart from a few framed, posed photographs. I trawled through the countless snaps saved in my tech’s memory and ordered a variety to be printed up like proper old photos, with wide white borders.

The photographs arrived. They overwhelmed me, sitting there in fat packets. For my daughter and me they represented a slice of our lives, but for him … well, by the time I got to the end of the packets my husband’s life would have found its full stop.

And that’s the essence of my novel. The stories we carry and tell, the versions of our family life that endures after we go. Those old snaps – the book begins in nineteen seventy – were artless, unfiltered, naive. What do they say about us? Do they tell the truth?

If you have ever collated photographs of a lost love, you’ll know that the process stopped me in my tracks at times. To see your dead beloved smiling out at you, with that look on his face that lets you know that it was you behind the camera, you he was smiling at with that special gaze, disabled me at times. But in a good way, I reminded myself as my own eyes went fuzzy with tears.

When the albums were full, I shared them with my girl. She pored over them like a scholar with an ancient text. The albums sit snug – dare I say smug? – on a shelf. When she goes to university later this year they’ll go with her. Because they are home, with her family complete inside the pages, always available to her, always welcoming, and full of love.

The House That Made Us was published by Simon & Schuster on 19 January 2023

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