The Upstairs House: A Novel
- By Julia Fine
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Sarahlyn Bruck
- March 1, 2021
Ghosts real or imagined haunt a new mother in the grips of postpartum psychosis.
Julia Fine’s haunting second novel takes on early motherhood and reads like a modern-day “The Yellow Wallpaper” or The Turn of the Screw, exposing the vast gaps in our collective understanding about postpartum depression and psychosis.
At its core, The Upstairs House is a ghost story told from the perspective of brand-new mom Megan, who has recently given birth to her first child, Clara. Physically and mentally, Megan is sore, depleted, and sleep-deprived, but the reader soon learns there’s much more than exhaustion at play. When she returns home to the Chicago condo she shares with her husband, Ben, Megan starts hearing noises coming from the stairs leading to the roof deck.
No one else hears them.
Numb and constantly drained of her already-limited resources, Megan at first feels ambivalence toward her infant — a feeling shared by many new parents. At least those mysterious sounds remind her she can still feel:
“And maybe that was the beginning — the noises from upstairs, the first crack in Ben, my laughter. A dawning recognition that the anxiety I’d felt during my pregnancy was only going to increase now that Clara had come out of me. The dry, itchy skin. The sensitivity to light. The word sensitivity comes from the Old French sensitif, which means ‘capable of feeling.’ In a way I supposed it was good, to know that I was and I could.”
In Life Before Motherhood, Megan was a doctoral candidate well into the writing of her dissertation. When Ben leaves on a business trip, she soon discovers that the source of those upstairs sounds is the same as the subject of her study: late children’s author Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny) and her actress/socialite lover, Michael Strange (Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs’ nom de plume).
Under the spell of Brown and Strange, Megan’s life slowly starts to unravel. She mourns her old identity and independence and feels chained to the baby, who needs so much from her:
“Clara was ten days old, and time felt both inconsequential and absolutely vital. She was pretty much a blob, and I still wasn’t sure if I loved her, but I knew that at one point I’d loved my work, I knew my work was still there, waiting. What would my obituary look like, what would they write on my tombstone, were I to go up through the turquoise door and free-fall out the picture window? Megan Weiler, survived by sixty unwritten pages and a round or two of revision. Also a baby. That wouldn’t do.”
While Ben’s professional life goes on, Megan’s is suddenly on hold — perhaps permanently.
Author Fine successfully brings to the surface much of the fraught anxieties and trauma of new motherhood that many moms who’ve survived it sometimes wish to forget. Babies do bring joy, of course, but also, sometimes, a deep sense of loss of self.
There’s that jolt of going from being childless — and someone, Megan notes, who could check out the new tequila bar down the street at a moment’s notice — to being attached to a baby (literally) all the time. This identity switch is almost universally jarring, but it can be devastating for some women, even those who chose motherhood and deeply love their babies.
On top of that, new moms are inundated with outside advice and platitudes they didn’t ask for. Megan is told how she should feel; what she should be grateful for; that she must — must! — breastfeed at all costs; and that the baby comes before her work and, indeed, herself. No one listens to Megan, and the resulting powerlessness and claustrophobia eat away at her. Before too long, she doesn’t know who she is or what is real.
The Upstairs House is fully immersive. As I read, I appreciated that I couldn’t predict where this well-crafted ghost story was going. Part of that uncertainty was a result of how poorly understood postpartum psychosis truly is, but it mostly came from the wonderful suspense pulsing throughout.
I held my breath page after page, eager to know what would happen. Would Megan keep her baby safe? Could she save herself? I won’t tell, and I won’t be able to let this story go anytime soon.