Image by Michael Otto 

How sweet tobe a cloud!, Pooh exclaimed on the poster above my head, hold­ing the end of a blue bal­loon and float­ing on the paper air every sum­mer night as I fell asleep — the pink let­ters run­ning one into the oth­er in a bub­ble graph­ic font from the 1960s.

Though that poster dis­ap­peared in the eight­ies, the room and the wall remain in the sum­mer­house where the third and fourth gen­er­a­tions of my fam­i­ly still return. And now, stand­ing on the thresh­old of that room near­ly six­ty years lat­er, the wall recalls the poster with its rust­ed met­al tacks as well as the last of the sum­mer evening light stretch­ing through the win­dow, the dis­tant voic­es of grownups just sit­ting down to din­ner — and my six-year-old con­fu­sion star­ing up at the inscrutable line: what was a tobe?

I hold that child­hood image in my head, just as I can con­jure the exact twin­ing of the boats and barns on the wall­pa­per in the front hall­way, long since papered over, but car­ry­ing with them the mem­o­ry of the dec­o­rat­ing bat­tle between my moth­er and my aunt; the field of val­or mov­ing in the next sum­mer to the con­test­ed col­or of the uphol­stery on the wing­back chairs in the front room. I can tell you what remained on the man­tel­piece, and what was moved off; I could describe to you the wood­en bowl of nuts at my grand­fa­ther’s elbow at cock­tails, and the round can­vas bag my grand­moth­er’s keys and glass­es remained in on a hook by the back door. My fam­i­ly spoke through the dumb lan­guage of things in the rooms of our house, far more than they did them­selves. So I learned ear­ly on to lean low and lis­ten to the silence of a place.

My fam­i­ly spoke through the dumb lan­guage of things in the rooms of our house, far more than they did them­selves. So I learned ear­ly on to lean low and lis­ten to the silence of a place.

Hous­es hold sto­ries in that silence; and when you lis­ten, they tell them.

That silence under­girds Freud’s the­o­ry of the uncan­ny, the unheim­lich, lit­er­al­ly unhome­like, link­ing the famil­iar to the strange. The house holds all the lay­ers of a self, past and present, and the return to that place forces a look into the mir­ror the house holds up, a con­fronta­tion with who you were the last time you crossed that thresh­old — whether it was this morn­ing or last month, or last year. In the rooms of your life, you are the ghost in the mir­ror, the face remem­bered, the phrase uttered and pushed down — all held by the four walls you pass through.

As such, some of my favorite fic­tions are those of mem­o­ry and the windy, haunt­ing silences around what is for­got­ten.” Fre­quent­ly, these are sto­ries with hous­es at their nar­ra­tive cen­ter, work­ing almost as if anoth­er char­ac­ter — the source of what goes unsaid, and often, what is most true.

When I began my third nov­el, The Guest Book, I want­ed to write a book that entered the con­ver­sa­tion about self, place, and mem­o­ry that I had seen in oth­er works. The fol­low­ing four works by Char­lotte Perkins Gilman, Vir­ginia Woolf, James Bald­win, and Nicole Krauss taught me how to think about the walls around us all and what these walls are saying.

The Guest Book chron­i­cles three gen­er­a­tions of the Mil­ton fam­i­ly, an old mon­ey fam­i­ly that has come to the end of its mon­ey, but not its place — an island off the coast of Maine — or its sense of pow­er. It moves back and forth between the 1930s, the 1950s, and the present in Man­hat­tan and on their island, as the con­se­quences of a sin­gle moment from a night in 1936 pass through gen­er­a­tions, untold until the place itself demands a reck­on­ing. It’s about con­fronting the his­to­ry inside us — entwin­ing a family’s untold secrets with this country’s half-told his­to­ry of racism and anti­semitism — the pasts we car­ry and blind­ly pass along.

Char­lotte Perkins Gilman’s short sto­ry, The Yel­low Wall­pa­per (1892) nar­rates one woman’s descent into mad­ness over the course of thir­ty swift pages. Pre­scribed bed rest after a dif­fi­cult child­birth, the woman is sent to recov­er” in a room at the top of the house; a room she comes to real­ize was once the nurs­ery. The wall­pa­per begins to take on the con­tours of her tor­tured and devolv­ing psy­che, the exte­ri­or expres­sion of her inte­ri­or state. It is a bril­liant ear­ly fem­i­nist fic­tion that address­es the cru­cible between mad­ness and the con­straint of a woman’s body, and the impo­si­tion of silence on a woman’s mind. Here, along with Bertha Mason rag­ing at the top of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, is the par­a­dig­mat­ic mad­woman in the attic. The last sen­tence is one of the sin­gle most hor­rif­ic end­ings in all of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry literature.

Vir­ginia Woolf’s To The Light­house (1927) is the nov­el I return to again and again. Not only were hers the sen­tences that taught me the most, but this nov­el of two long days in the life of the Ram­say fam­i­ly at their sum­mer house, sep­a­rat­ed by years and the Great War, show again and again how the pas­sage of time (an after­noon, a day, a decade) is best under­stood by the still­ness of unused objects, emp­ty rooms, a house hold­ing time until the fam­i­ly’s return. The day pass­es through the minds of Mr. and Mrs. Ram­say, their chil­dren, the artist Lily Briscoe, and assort­ed col­leagues of Mr. Ram­say: a bril­liant poet, a hap­less philoso­pher. Noth­ing and every­thing hap­pens, as is true of the best sum­mer days. They turn off the light on the first day. And then, in the mid­dle sec­tion: Time Pass­es. This is one of the most spec­tac­u­lar med­i­ta­tions on the beau­ty and inten­si­ty of still-life, a room cov­ered in dust clothes, the flies trapped in win­dowsills, and how that still-life some­how ampli­fies human life most ful­ly. When the fam­i­ly, much changed by the pas­sage of time, returns the sec­ond day ten years lat­er, they find the house unchanged. Here is the nov­el of a house that holds its peo­ple, the beat­ing heart at the cen­ter of its char­ac­ters, and it works like the lighthouse’s sweep, guid­ing us in across time and space to the final sat­is­fy­ing stroke of Lily Briscoe’s brush.

In James Bald­win’s sec­ond nov­el, Gio­van­ni’s Room (1956) David, the nar­ra­tor, tries to break from the rigid expec­ta­tions of 1950s white Amer­i­can man­hood by mov­ing to France. Trag­i­cal­ly, he finds that the coun­try, our upbring­ing, our cul­ture is hard to leave behind. Begin­ning with one of the great first lines — I stand at the win­dow of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is lead­ing me to the most ter­ri­ble morn­ing of my life”the nov­el pro­ceeds back­ward in an account­ing, a reck­on­ing for what brings him to that win­dow. And what brings him there is love. The love that David has found in the room in Paris, Giovanni’s room — the room where Gio­van­ni, a bar­tender, lives. It is a room that works like a hot­house nurs­ery, forc­ing love to bloom, and oblit­er­at­ing for a time, the rest of the world out­side the room. In that room David both comes to find and lose him­self, and through his eyes we see the immense pow­er and the lim­its of love.

Final­ly, and in some ways the obverse of all the oth­ers, Nicole Krausss beau­ti­ful and intri­cate nov­el Great House asks what remains when the phys­i­cal house does not. What can held mem­o­ry and unspo­ken sto­ry look like when the house is lost? The sto­ry is unhoused, as it were, and dis­placed into a desk, with many draw­ers, that binds three plot lines and their char­ac­ters togeth­er; a woman writer in New York who has writ­ten on the desk she inher­it­ed from a Chilean poet; a man in Lon­don who dis­cov­ers a secret lock of hair as his wife is dying; an antique deal­er try­ing to recre­ate his father’s study from 1944, destroyed by the Nazis. In some sens­es this is the nov­el where the ghost of the house each of these char­ac­ters is miss­ing ren­ders anoth­er house: the house of loss. It is a bril­liant med­i­ta­tion on what we pull around us to write, to live, and to recre­ate the mem­o­ries that make us, tell us who we are, remind­ing us that we are here.

Sarah Blake is the author of the nov­els Grange House, The Guest Books, and the inter­na­tion­al­ly best-sell­ing The Post­mistress; a chap­book of poems, Full Turn; and Run­away Girls, an artist book in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the artist Robin Kahn. She lives in Wash­ing­ton D.C. with her hus­band, the poet Joshua Wein­er, and their two sons.