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In Home Body, John Thorne meditates on the household -- the spaces within and among which we dwell. (Some of us do, anyway; not everyone is so lucky.) In the 20 little essays and prose-poems composing Thorne's book, he reflects upon such topics as the stairwell, the attic, the bathtub and the mirror. They are all very familiar objects (which is also to say, easily ignored). They structure private life, as girders do a building, but they seldom become the object of deliberate concentration. The components of a living space do sometimes make urgent demands on our attention, of course -- and a repair manual is the book for such moments. But Thorne, a talented food writer whose books include Outlaw Cook (1993) and Serious Pig (1996), has written something altogether different.
The best pages in Home Body follow the peculiar logic of daydreaming: "Anyone familiar with real keyholes knows there is nothing much to be seen through one -- certainly nothing to compare to the hold it has over our fantasies. This, I think, is so because there is, besides the mouth, another bodily orifice with which the keyhole might be associated ... one suggested by its shape, its location at exactly groin height, its relationship to the key, and especially its aura of secrecy, the tension between temptation and denial that surrounds any forbidden entry." This passage offers, in condensed form, the essence of Thorne's outlook and method. Home is where the body comes to rest, and special intimacy grows between the two. The dweller's use of the dwelling's features (the chair, the sink, the attic) are part of a conversation, the inner dialogue of our being in the world. The writer's work is to reproduce both the elements of that exchange and its tone.
Much the same point was made, decades ago, by French thinker Gaston Bachelard, whose brilliant work, Poetics of Space, Thorne probably knows. In contemplating the relation between the self and the world, Bachelard said, philosophers have tended to overlook a third region of being: the home, which forms a boundary or membrane between the two. In his intellectually powerful yet very sensitive treatment, Bachelard finds that poets have been more astute than metaphysicians in appreciating the logic of dwelling places. He would approve, I think, of Thorne's observation: "Every house must have its own space, a place in which to find its meaning apart from us ... Closets make us uneasy. We cannot dominate them the way we do other rooms. We feel like intruders when we go into them, strangers even. The closet is the room's room, the place where it retreats when we have filled it too much with ourselves."
As noted, Home Body is at its best when Thorne's writing displays the paradoxical qualities of the daydream: fluid yet precise. Frequently, though, the writing in Home Body is merely self-conscious and willed -- the product of a brain laboriously wracked to find something to say. "I don't think I've ever felt any fondness for field mice," one paragraph begins -- and it ends: "only a single letter separates pet from pest." There are some good essays in Home Body, and it rests on a sound foundation of insight. But too many pages are fabricated from thin panels of metaphor; the reader may get an uneasy feeling that the whole thing is about to disintegrate, like a house of cards. -- Salon