Ah this book. Last year, it was everywhere I turned. It was on list after list after list of recommendations, of mid year and year end round ups. It was hotly anticipated and has been highly lauded. So even though it wasn’t really something I would normally go after, I thought I would see what all the fuss was about. And as unwieldy as it is, I do really like the title. It’s not yet published in the UK, so I imported it via a friend visiting from the USA. It tells the story of a married couple who move to the titular house to start a family. But this is a fairy tale world, where the wife can sing things into existence and the husband can commune with the wildlife and as every pregnancy fails, events become ever darker and more sinister.
Things do get off to a promising start. Our narrator, the husband (Bell doesn’t give them anything as straightforward as names), takes one of the failed foetuses into himself, calls it a fingerling, and begins to listen as it talks to him. It’s super creepy and kind of brilliant and the rage that consumes him as they watch his wife take ever more desperate measures to pretend her last pregnancy has not failed is quite chilling. But things begin to go downhill fast. Bell is making his debut as a novelist, and the idea isn’t enough to be spun out to a full length novel at just over 300 pages. It’s a short story, stretched far beyond its scope for narrative and Bell’s use of language. What starts out as equal parts florid, lyrical and spiky soon becomes tiresome, repetitive and dull. I really wanted to like it. And for about 50 pages, I did enjoy it.
Problem is, I then had another 250 pages to wade through, with nameless characters I’m not overly invested in. The wife is barely there, and once you get past the lengths she’s gone to for a child, there’s not really anything more there to hold on to. Instead we have seemingly endless pages of the husband fishing in the lake and trapping animals in the dirt. And I hope you like the words “house”, “dirt”, “lake” and “woods”, because you will read them approximately eleventy billion times before you get to the end of this not really that long but still far too long book.
Ultimately, if you read this sentence: “The squid was a hunter and a trapper too, and I was the squid and the squid was me, and we shot through the ink toward the bear, searching for that thin breadth of bone-spaced chance, and as we jetted through that horror I heard the fingerling’s voice call out to me, call out in many voices for me to save him, to take him back in, begging as only a child can beg” and you think “holy fuck that’s amazing” then this is the book for you and I hope you enjoy it much more than I did. If you rolled your eyes and thought “oh for heavens sakes” then don’t even pick it up. I prefer books with characters and a narrative, something I can get interested in and care about. If I am left in awe of the wordsmithery along the way, bonus. If I’m not gripped and I call think is “STOP SAYING THE WORDS ‘HOUSE’ AND ‘LAKE'” then nobody is having any fun. Ah well!