When Laura Keys, the contemporary protagonist of Elizabeth Ruth’s Semi-Detached, first enters the house at Two Condor Avenue on an icy winter day in Toronto in 2013, she feels as if she has “stepped into a time capsule”: there’s “a time-worn edition of Monopoly,” a “78 of Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ll be Seeing You’ on the turntable,” a tea-stained china cup still redolent of “Earl Grey and English lavender.” As a realtor, Laura has long understood that houses convey the spirit of their former inhabitants, but no house has made her feel so uncomfortably like a trespasser, “as if the owner could walk through the front door at any moment.”
The owner of the house, Edna (Eddie) Ferguson, is in hospital in a coma from which she is not expected to awake. Her story, intercut with Laura’s throughout the novel, takes us back to Toronto in 1944, when Eddie worked in a brickyard, played in a women-only bowling league, and was in love with Annie, her boss’s daughter. Through Eddie’s story, Ruth offers vivid vignettes of wartime Toronto, but the key themes of Semi-Detached are not historical but personal, as Laura and Eddie both struggle in their own ways with what it means to be at home.
Eddie’s house on Condor Avenue provides Ruth’s central metaphor for this inquiry. Laura’s mother Marilyn, who has recently died after a difficult decline into Alzheimer’s, once told Laura that “people were souls housed within bodies” and that “when she died her energy would carry on, somehow.” Semi-Detached both explores and literalizes the possibility that spirits can “carry on” beyond the material structures that once held them. Eddie has found herself (as Marilyn did) imprisoned in a body that no longer expresses her identity: she is in a “middle place, between living and not living.”
Laura, in her turn, feels trapped in a marriage that is foundering on the rock of her infertility: Laura’s wife, Cat, has had enough of trying for children, and as the resentment rises in their relationship, the tenderness and trust decline. “Homeowners,” Laura reflects ruefully, “aren’t the only ones who suffer from buyer’s remorse.”
The link between Eddie’s past and Laura’s present is Astrid, a young woman Laura first sees standing in the snow outside Eddie’s house. “Invite me in, Laura,” she says, but at first Laura warily declines. Who is Astrid? Why does she appear and disappear so unpredictably? Why are her answers to Laura’s questions so evasive, and why does she want so much to get into the house? Laura’s theories – perhaps she is homeless, or an abuse victim, or queer and cast out – approach but miss the whole truth, which we understand before Laura does: Astrid belongs to the history of Two Condor Avenue. She has come back after a long absence, much longer than she herself knows: “So many years had passed! Where had she been between then and now?”
It takes Laura most of the novel to piece together the dramatic saga that left its physical and emotional traces in the Condor Avenue house. Along the way she wrestles with her own questions about what makes a house a home and, more importantly, what makes us at home with ourselves. These are problems that the novel clearly shows have social, political, and economic dimensions as well as personal ones, so while Semi-Detached is elegantly constructed and often beautifully written, there is something dissatisfying about the supernatural aspects, especially when they turn out to be working in the service of romantic wish-fulfillment: “that nothing really ends, not time or love, love merely changes form, like the weather.” Eddie may believe that people, like houses, can be “restored and go on” – but only in a ghost story would this comforting metaphor hold up.