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Stuart Neville's first novel in five years, a stand-alone, is set in rural Northern Ireland, and, like his early novels, is populated by the ghosts of old, suppressed, and violent acts. These ghosts do not arise from the Troubles, that decades long struggle to re-unite the two Irelands in which more non-combatants died than armed participants. The ghosts in THE HOUSE OF ASHES are the shades of children who died of neglect, abuse, or murder over a period of years. They haunt the house in which some sixty years ago they were both born and died, an isolated farmhouse in rural Northern Ireland.
The novel opens with a brief but horrifying account of a fire probably caused by arson. The sole occupant of the house, an elderly woman, escapes though she is injured. Her pet cats are less fortunate and cat lovers may perhaps want to skip over this chapter altogether.
What follows is a narrative that alternates between past and present, between the elderly woman's childhood, some sixty years ago, and Sara Keane and her husband Damien, the current residents of the house which is now called The Ashes. They have been gifted with the place by Damien's father and are now in the process of repairing it following the fire. They used to live in England, where Sara was a child protection officer, but there she suffered a breakdown and at Damien's insistence moved to an area where she has neither job nor friends and is totally dependent on an increasingly demanding and restrictive husband. We are introduced to her as she kneels in the kitchen diligently scrubbing away at apparent blood stains that disappear momentarily only to reappear. Damien cannot see them, or so he says.
She is still scrubbing when an elderly woman appears at the door, demanding to be let in to what she says is her house. This is Mary, the woman who escaped the fire. Her story alternates with Sara's, ultimately explaining the bloodstains and the ghosts.
Neville adopts a risky narrative strategy - the story unfolds in a series of chapters alternating between past and present but all told from the point of view of individual female characters; the males are observed from without so that we know only what they do, not what they are thinking. Only Mary, a child at the time of the killings that eliminated every adult in the house, tells her story in the first person. The others - Mummies Joy and Noreen and later the newly captured Esther as well as Sara - get their own chapters but are described rather than speak in their own voices. The three Daddies - Ian, the father, and his adult sons Tham and George - are heard more than seen. But their presence is oppressive - violent, loud, demanding and dangerous. The Mummies have good cause to be frightened of them. They have felt the buckle-end of their belts and, worse, know that the bodies of children who have died because of them lie buried on the farm.
Generally I have tended to avoid this particular sub-genre of the captive woman largely because it often is more concerned with the psychology of the captor than that of the prisoner. Here, however, Neville appears supremely uninterested in what particular incidence of childhood abuse or absent mother created this family of monstrous men. He knows, at least broadly, what did. It was toxic masculinity, simply put, that and a general indifference to the lives of women. The fact that these men could behave as they did for more than a decade without any questions asked suggests that they were merely an extreme example of the power imbalance between men and women existing in the land. It is an imbalance that continues to exist if Sara's situation is anything to judge by.
Sara was beguiled into her marriage in much the same way as the captive women were ensnared. The men who approached them appeared caring, concerned with their well-being, promising a stable future. Damien was the considerate lover who overwhelmed Sara with his charm and intensity. All of them felt that a man was the key to a secure life. Sara's girlfriends tried to warn her; the others didn't seem to have any friends.
As the story unfolds, we learn from Mary's account about the life she and the other women led as slaves to their captors. And we learn what happened when Mary was twelve when a third young woman, Esther, was captured and introduced into the house. Her presence serves as a message to Mary and to Mummy Joy that there may be an alternative to the life they are living, that change, even rebellion, may be possible. In alternate chapters, Sara is taking her first tentative steps toward leaving Damien and regaining her own life. Whether these two dangerous undertakings will succeed, whether they can succeed, are questions that create a tense anticipation till the end of the novel.
Ghost stories remind us that the past is never altogether buried, no matter how much we might wish it to be. It is difficult to say exactly where Neville stands on the question of whether the dead past can ever be left to bury the dead or not. In the end, we see that he suggests that resistance and even change is certainly possible, though success is far from guaranteed and damage will certainly ensue. The name of the house, The Ashes, is itself ambiguous. Does it refer to the lovely trees that line the drive up to the door or is it a reminder of the fire that all but consumed the house without exorcizing its ghosts?
Although THE HOUSE OF ASHES is a novel that should come festooned with trigger warnings of various sorts, it is nonetheless an absorbing read, one that is difficult to put down and hard to forget.
Neville has always been a novelist of great promise. Now he has delivered on that promise with a book that is wrenching but in the end does not exploit either our sympathies or our fears.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2021
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