The Inquiring Reader
Reviews, critiques, and thoughts


by Fiona McFarlane

reviewed by Jon Duelfer


Illustration by Anna Haifisch

Read online at The New Yorker

Fiona McFarlane’s Demolition tells the story behind the demolition of a neighborhood house. Eva had lived across the street as many families came and went. Now, she stares out the window with her partner, Gerald, as the home is gutted and brought to the ground.

I was immediately impressed by the way McFarlane introduced her characters. Eva is cynically introspective. She is in a wheelchair – presumably due to an accident or old age. Gerald is a large, joyful man who takes care of her and finds happiness in doing so.

A visitor approaches the house. Gerald see hers approaching and rushes to meet her, because “he liked to get to the door before a visitor.” Here, we get a glimpse of McFarlane’s keen attention to detail.

The woman was the type who put her head around the door before she entered a room: here was her head, light hair, sharp nose, and now here was her body. Was it to conceal her shortness? Eva understood these strategies; she didn’t like people to see her wheelchair before they saw her face.

In such a short paragraph, McFarlane conveyed the personalities of both characters. I pictured the visitor, Kate, craning her neck around the doorway as a cloth bag hung over her shoulder, overacting to display her social awareness. I pictured Eva, on the other hand, as a sharp observer seeing through Kate’s facade. This difference in personalities was bound to cause some conflict.

Kate had been to Eva’s house before. She asks Eva if she ever read the book she wrote and left with her. Eva picks it up off her bookshelf; it’s about the house that’s being demolished across the street. It’s titled Hunter on the Highway: The True Story of a Monster Among Us. Kate is a journalist.

Eva thinks about the last family that lived in the house – the Biga family. She thinks about the boy, Paul, and “noticed that she was rubbing her thumb against Paul’s shiny face on the book jacket” while doing so.

Kate asks her about the Biga house. Eva responds that it’s actually the Lainey’s house – the Lainey family had built the house about the same year that Eva’s was built. During this conversation, Eva reminiscences about her youth: the summers she spent with Josie Lainey, presumably romantically involved.

Kate asks about Paul Biga – if Eva had noticed anything different about him while he was growing up.

What Kate meant, of course, was that you learn things about people when you live so close to them, even if you don’t spend time together. That you notice things, without meaning to – surely you notice things. Nobody wanted to believe Eva when she said that Paul Biga had seemed like a perfectly ordinary boy.

Eva’s public answer is that she had never noticed anything off about Paul. Her private one – which she chooses to hold back from the journalist – is that there was an incident that concerned her.

Imagine her glee if Eva were to say, “There was one strange thing. Paul wrote me a letter.”

The Letter

Reveal spoilers

Final Thoughts

Now a new house would be built: larger, uglier, and filled with the inexplicable lives of other people.

Demolition is a good story. The demolition of the “Biga house” represents the destruction of Eva’s memories. It bothers her. She doesn’t want the house to be represented by the bad events surrounding it. It has a much deeper story.

This parallels the fact that Eva is handicapped. She doesn’t want people to label or judge her for being in a wheelchair. She doesn’t want people to label or judge the house because of one bad person. Things are much deeper than the simple labels we tag them with. The demolitions of the house reflects the destruction of her personality in some sense.

McFarlane’s characters are masterfully introduced and developed throughout the story. The ominous background of the “Monster Among Us” adds tension. The lighthearted antagonism between Kate and Eva adds a subtle conflict. It’s not my favorite story, but McFarlane’s expertise is unmistakable.