Book Review

Mini Reviews of Recent Reads – November 2019

Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy

water shall refuse them

The heatwave of 1976. Following the accidental drowning of her sister, sixteen-year-old Nif and her family move to a small village on the Welsh borders to escape their grief. But rural seclusion doesn’t bring any relief. As her family unravels, Nif begins to put together her own form of witchcraft collecting talismans from the sun-starved land. That is, until she meets Mally, a teen boy who takes a keen interest in her, and has his own secret rites to divulge. Reminiscent of the suspense of Shirley Jackson and soaked in the folk horror of English heritage, Water Shall Refuse Them is an atmospheric coming-of-age novel and a thrilling debut.

Water Shall Refuse Them is a fantastic, creepy read.  It begins with Jennifer (Nif) and her family traveling from London to spend a month in Wales over the summer holiday.  It’s clear that the family isn’t a happy one, with Nif’s mother rendered virtually catatonic by a family tragedy.  Her father is trying his best to keep the family together, but is clearly beginning to fray around the edges, having to cope not only with his own grief but also the increasingly difficult task of looking after his wife.  Nif appears to be dealing with her grief in quite an unusual way, and has developed “the creed” – a set of rules and rituals by which she lives.  It’s a private coping mechanism, and yet I wondered how far it might go if left unchecked – it causes Nif to behave in some peculiar ways, and it’s easy to see it spiralling out of control as the reader comes to understand it in more detail.

Arriving at their destination, they are met with an indifference bordering on hostility – this is not a place that welcomes outsiders.  It seems natural then that Nif and Mally should become friends – Mally is another outsider who has recently moved to the area with his mother, and who has likewise been made to feel unwelcome, albeit for quite different reasons which are revealed as the novel progresses.  Their friendship is an unusual one – throughout the novel, there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right about it, although I did wonder if it was just that they are both slightly odd individuals who don’t fit social norms.

I loved the history that is included in the novel, linking the present-day events to the 17th century and the spread of the bubonic plague, as well as the beliefs at the time concerning witches and wise women.  This background lends itself well to the sense of impending doom and the eerie atmosphere that can be found throughout the novel.  Water Shall Refuse Them is a strong debut that I found to be reminiscent of The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley.

Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan

things we say in the dark

So here we go, into the dark.

Some things can’t be spoken about in the light of day. But we can visit our fears at night, in the dark. We can turn them over and weigh them in our hands and maybe that will protect us from them. But maybe not.

The characters in this collection find their aspirations for happy homes, happy families and happy memories dissected and imbued with shimmering menace. Alone in a remote house in Iceland a woman is unnerved by her isolation; another can only find respite from the clinging ghost that follows her by submerging herself in an overgrown pool. Couples wrestle with a lack of connection to their children; a schoolgirl becomes obsessed with the female anatomical models in a museum; and a cheery account of child’s day out is undercut by chilling footnotes.

These dark tales explore women’s fears with electrifying honesty and invention and speak to one another about female bodies, domestic claustrophobia, desire and violence. From a talented writer who has been compared to Angela Carter, Things We Say in the Dark is a powerful contemporary collection of feminist stories, ranging from vicious fairy tales to disturbing horror and tender ghost stories.

I’m a big fan of Kirsty Logan’s work, and was delighted to hear about her latest publication – a collection of short stories featuring dark fairy tales and ghost stories.

Things We Say in the Dark is divided into three sections, tackling Home, The Child, and The Past.  Like all of Logan’s work, there is a strong feminist element to the collection, and to me Things We Say in the Dark seemed to address the fears associated with those elements of life that women are (still) told will make them happy – things such as having the perfect home and the perfect family.

As with most short story collections, there were some in the collections that enjoyed more than others, although as a whole I found this to be a wonderfully eerie collection.  The standouts for me were:

  • Things My Wife and I Found Hidden in Our House – a wonderful creepy tale about a young couple who inherit a house and begin to discover hidden objects that come together to tell a tale about the previous inhabitant
  • Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size – this tale features a spiritualist and her daughter who are being investigated, unknowingly, by a man seeking to expose them as frauds. Told from the dual perspectives of the daughter and the investigator, this has a wonderfully fitting ending
  • Half Sick of Shadows – this is one of the shorter tales in the collection, spanning a mere 6 pages and I can’t tell you much about this one without spoiling it, but it’s so brilliantly clever that I finished it and immediately read it again

This is a great collections of short stories, and one that should appeal to fans of Angela Carter.

Little Eve by Catriona Ward

little eve

Eve and Dinah are everything to one another, never parted day or night. They are raised among the Children, a community of strays and orphans ruled by a mysterious figure they call Uncle. All they know is the grey Isle of Altnaharra which sits in the black sea off the wildest coast of Scotland.

Eve loves the free, savage life of the Isle and longs to inherit Uncle’s power. She is untroubled save by her dreams; of soft arms and a woman singing. Dinah longs for something other.

But the world is at war and cannot be kept at bay. As the solitude of Altnaharra is broken, Eve’s faith and sanity fracture. In a great storm, in the depths of winter, as the old year dies, the locals discover a devastating scene on the Isle.

Eve and Dinah’s accounts of that night contradict and intertwine. As past and present converge, only one woman can be telling the truth. Who is guilty, who innocent?

Little Eve is a fantastically creepy read.  The Eve of the title is Evelyn, one of the members of a small group who reside at the castle on the Isle of Altnaharra, which can only be reached at low tide.  The novel opens with the discovery of a gruesome scene in which the inhabitants have been horribly mutilated and killed – with the exception of Dinah, Eve’s friend – who manages to survive against the odds.  The novel then moves back in time by four years, to show how events escalated to that point, as well as sharing Dinah’s retrospective view of events as she grows older.

From the beginning of the novel, it’s clear that those living at the castle are seen as outsiders – they don’t mix with those in the local village any more than is necessary, and keep to themselves as much as possible.  This situation suits both them and the villagers fine, with the latter not welcoming them, and the former having no desire to get to know outsiders who don’t understand their way of life.  As the reader learns more about their little commune, it becomes clear that this is a cult in all but name, headed up by John Bearings, who is referred to as Uncle by those in his care.  This is exactly as creepy as it sounds, and it soon becomes clear that Bearings has a strong hold on those in his care, keeping them half-starved and using a seemingly arbitrary and brutal number of rules to enforce their good behaviour.

There are some genuinely horrifying moments in the novel, and there is a sense of unease in its pages – it’s unsettling and disturbing throughout.  There is much that isn’t fully revealed until the very end of the novel, but oh what an ending it is.  It took me by surprise, but in the best possible way.

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