Monthly Archives: November 2014

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Witch of Salt and Storm’

I’m not sure why I picked up The Witch of Salt and Storm. It has a beautiful cover, sure; it sported some darn fine writing in its opening pages, of course. It had an interesting premise, set in a time period and backdrop which interests me.

Image: tumblr.com

Image: tumblr.com

But, despite all that, it was a book about grand passion. And we all know how I normally feel about books like that.

Photo Credit: bayat via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: bayat via Compfight cc

Clearly, I saw something different in this book, something different enough to make me intrigued enough to buy it. I’m still not sure what this indefinable ‘something’ is: the voice, maybe. Whatever it was, I’m hugely glad I took the chance on it.

This book moved me deeply. It made me think about the nature of sacrifice, what the word ‘love’ even means, and how many different aspects there are to this seemingly simple state of being. It made me think about motherhood, and how it feels to be a mother, to be a daughter, to feel hemmed in by the protective instincts which seek to keep you safe in a troubled world, and how frustrating it is when what you want (or think you want, which amounts to much the same thing) seems not to tally with what your circumstances dictate that you will have. It’s a complex and satisfying book, for all its romantic aspects, and I don’t mind telling you at the outset that it’s one I really enjoyed.

The book is narrated by Avery Roe, who is the granddaughter of the current witch of Prince Island. The island has always had a witch, and she is always a Roe; one cannot exist without the other. The islanders need the witch to keep the weather fair, to keep their boats safe, and to keep their men returning home, hale and hearty, after every whaling season. The witch needs the island to live, for the Roe witch can never set foot off Prince Island. The mantle of the Roe witch passes from mother to daughter roughly every forty years or so, but at the outset of the book we learn that Avery’s mother, who should have taken over as the witch several years before, has – for reasons which seem inexplicable to Avery – turned her back on her calling, and is living with her husband and his children in the town of New Bishop, a major whaling port. What’s worse is she has forced Avery to come and live with her. This meant tearing her away from her grandmother and the life she knew and loved for her first twelve years, as – for reasons which don’t become clear until the dramatic, painful dénouement – Avery has lived with her grandmother since birth, and loves her dearly. As the story opens Avery is sixteen, and has been desperately trying to find her way back to her grandmother for the past four years, without success. The distance between the two is a mere few miles, but Avery’s mother has placed her under such a strong curse that she can barely think about making a move towards her grandmother’s house before something disastrous happens to block her way. No matter what she tries, Avery is left stuck, frustrated and angry, in New Bishop. She ‘tells dreams’ as a way to keep in touch with her magic (each Roe witch has a particular gift; Avery’s is foretelling the future through dreams), and then one night Avery has a dream of her own.

A dream in which she is a whale, pierced through by the harpoons of many hunters, left to die in the ocean.

She wakes, terrified, knowing that the dream portends her own murder. But she knows this means something worse: if she is going to die by violence, she will never make it back to her grandmother’s house, and she will never take over from her.

For you cannot kill the Roe witch.

Avery’s determination to go back to her grandmother and become the witch begins to dominate her life, but no matter what she tries, her mother’s magic is stronger than hers. Hemmed in at every turn, she is stuck, emotionally and physically. The relationship between Avery and her mother is amazingly well drawn; I at once found myself identifying totally with Avery, dying to be free, and with her mother, who would rather die than have her come to harm. But Avery knows time is running out, and her death is imminent, and she is desperate to find a way back to her grandmother, so when the tattooed boy from the South Pacific, Tane, comes to New Bishop with his strange, new magic, she takes a chance.

Despite her grandmother’s oft-repeated warning never to trust strange magic, Avery reaches a bargain with the strange boy. In exchange for telling his dreams, which Tane hopes will help uncover the identities of the people who murdered his family, he will try to break her mother’s curse.

I’m not going to say any more, besides what happens next is exquisitely well crafted. Avery’s journey, and the unspooling of the lives of her mother and grandmother, are beautifully realised, even when the nature of what’s happening is far from beautiful. Avery’s relationship with Tane is truly moving, and his back story is harrowing. He is, perhaps, a little idealised, but I can forgive him that, because he is a truly beautiful character who loves Avery, and who wants to give her the world. Because I’m not a fan of emotional description, I did find the book a little repetitive in places, but that is purely a personal thing; I’m sure other readers would love this aspect, and so I’m not pointing to it as a fault – I just preferred the more action-driven scenes. Luckily, there are plenty of those.

I really recommend this book. It’s so realistic that it reads like historical fiction, while also being so fantastical that it is like magical realism, while also offering up one of the most real, and touching, love relationships in YA literature that I’ve read. It was a compelling, beautiful read and I’ll certainly be checking out Kendall Kulper’s future work.

Flash Friday – ‘Sunken Treasure’

Your Hand in Mine/Goodbye. CC2 photo by Tony.  Image sourced: https://flashfriday.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/flash-friday-vol-2-51/

Your Hand in Mine/Goodbye. CC2 photo by Tony.
Image sourced: https://flashfriday.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/flash-friday-vol-2-51/

Sunken Treasure

Every step sucks at my feet like I’m walking through wet sand. Invisible waves push me gently, side to side. Pressure builds like a fist closing. My knees feel weak. My breath.

I could almost be walking into the sea, even though we’ve always lived in the desert, Mama and me.

She came home drunk again, filling the trailer with her foul mouth, her eyes blazing with pain even as she screamed I hate you! Parasite! I know she loves me, somewhere, but it’s buried deep. Sunken treasure, maybe.

I’ve been saving for six years, now. Buried in a tin can in the backyard. Thank the angels she never found it. I stole some. I worked for more. Now I’ve got enough, and I’m leaving.

But I feel her with me, like a parasol over my head. My memory-Mama, who held my hand and told me I was her precious baby.

I let the memory sink, and keep on walking.

**

Phew! My dears, it’s been a busy morning. This post is extremely late, for which I can only blame the vagaries of fate.

In any case, this week’s Flash! Friday is based around the prompt image above and the concept of ‘Coming of Age’, which – I’ll admit – made me think for quite a while. What constitutes coming of age? It varies, of course, with culture and history; sometimes, it’s reaching a particular age or hitting a developmental milestone. It’s taking a spouse. Passing a test, Getting a job. But then I thought that common to all ‘coming of age’ stories is the decision to leave home, strike out on your own, and leave aside the structures set in place for your life by your parents, whether they’re for good or (as in the case of my character) for ill. And so, the story was born – after a bit of wrangling with another tale, which didn’t work in the way I expected or, indeed, at all.

So, it’s Friday once again, thank the saints and little fishes. Tomorrow’s book review will be on the sort of tome I don’t normally read (there’s love in it – yeuch!) but you might be surprised by what I have to say, so stay tuned. Until then, I hope this tiny tale tides you over, and my best wishes for a happy day and a restful weekend for all. Bon voyage!

In Which Mildwyn the Robin Comes to Stay

Um. Hello? Hello, everyone. My name’s Mildwyn.

Brrr. It's cold here!

Brrr. It’s cold in this silly country!

I’m a robin, as you can see, and I’m new around here. (I thought it was a bit scary at first, but don’t tell anyone. I mean, there’s a gargoyle living in this house! How weird is that? Even though he’s actually very nice, when you get to know him. But still). You might be wondering how I came to be here, and – well. It’s a long and sorry tale. I came across the world in a tiny box, you see, and I got lost on the way. I was sure I was never going to make it all the way to Ireland but then, just as everyone had given up on me, it all came good. Gripping, isn’t it? I think so. Maybe they should make a movie out of it.

Here I am with my new friends. Cuthbert is the smaller of the two (he’s the gargoyle, but ssh! Don’t tell him I told you), and Buddha’s on the other side. He’s quiet, is Buddha. Does a lot of smiling, but not a lot else. Cuthbert’s the chatty one.

Hello!

Hello!

You may have met them before, he tells me.

The first thing they did was bring me to see the Hardinge collection. (Keep it to yourself, but I’m really not sure what that is. I oohed and aahed at all the right times, though, and tried to look impressed. Cuthbert took a photo for posterity).

Ooh. Aah. (I have no idea what I'm doing here).

Ooh. Aah. (I have no idea what I’m doing here).

Afterwards, Cuthbert told me that the lady who wrote all the books in the Hardinge collection is one of the best writers in the world. I don’t know how he knows, but he was pretty sure about it, so I guess he must be right. The covers were pretty, though. One of them even matched my feathers, almost!

Did you know robins are supposed to live outdoors? When we left the Hardinge collection, Cuthbert kept trying to shove me out the windows, telling me to ‘fly’ (he didn’t seem to understand that I’d already flown halfway across the world, and he told me that didn’t count, which I thought was a bit mean, but we’re friends again now). I did go and have a peep outside, but it seems far too cold out there for me. I come from a hot country, don’t you know? I’m not ready for all this frost, and stuff. Nope.

I don't see any other birds out there. I think Cuthbert's pulling my leg!

I don’t see any other birds out there. I think Cuthbert’s pulling my leg!

Plus, when we went into the living room there was another robin there. He was bigger than me and he was a bit on the quiet side, but Cuthbert made a rude face when I told him ‘Look! This robin’s not outside, but you’re not shoving him out the window, are you?’

But don’t worry. We made friends again. I think it might take him a little time to get used to me, though. I’m not sure why. I have a feeling it’s because the human who lives here (well, there are two, but I’m talking about the shorter one, who spends a lot of time on her own, talking to herself) got emotional when I hopped out of my box yesterday. She got a bit teary-eyed and sobby, you know what I mean? I don’t know why. But she was smiling, too, so I guess it was a good thing.

Who knows, eh? Humans. They’re all a bit weird. Not like us robins.

Here's me and the other robin. He was a bit too interested in posing for the camera to say hi, if I'm being honest.

Here’s me and the other robin. He was a bit too interested in posing for the camera to say hi, if I’m being honest.

Anyway, Cuthbert loves this short, strange human and so I suppose he feels a bit jealous that now he has to share her love with me. But she looks like the type who has plenty of love for all of us. I don’t think he needs to worry too much.

My favourite bit of the tour was meeting Elfie. She lives among the books, like a guardian (even though Cuthbert wants me to point out that he’s the guardian of the whole house, which includes all the books, and Elfie is only his helper, so that’s clear). Anyway, Elfie was very lovely.

Can you even see me? Hello! I'm utilising my camouflage here. Hee hee!

Can you even see me? Hello! I’m utilising my camouflage here. Hee hee!

So, phew. That was a lot to fit into one day, right? I’m off now to get some rest and find out what robins eat. Things are very different here than they were in Australia, where I was born, but I’m sure I’ll be very happy. One thing’s for sure: the short weird human loves me, and that’s all I need. I think she’ll take great care of me, and of Cuthbert and Buddha and Elfie too, and even that silly poser robin on the mantelpiece. I think I might have to learn to read, though, because there are a lot of books here, and they all look awesome.

It was so much fun to meet you all. I’m sure I’ll see you all soon! This is Mildwyn the robin, signing off, but if you need me you know where to find me.

(And if you don’t find me where I’m s’posed to be, ask Cuthbert. He seems to know everything around here).

 

My sincere thanks to my gentle friend Kate for making my beloved Mildwyn and sending him across the world to me for my birthday present. I hope this post will help you not to fret about your dear little robin, Kate, and reassure you that he’s among friends! (Don’t worry – I’ll keep an eye on Cuthbert) – S.J.

Wednesday Writing – ‘The Darkness, Waiting’

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

The Darkness, Waiting

It was the feeling of his breath on my cheek that woke me.

‘Sarah!’ came the whisper. Tiny. Terrified. ‘Sarah!

‘Ger? What…’

‘It’s Da! He’s home.’

I blinked. There was a blindfold on my brain. ‘But it’s the middle of the night,’ I murmured, sleepily. ‘What’s going on? Where’s Mam?’

‘In the kitchen, I think,’ he said. Terror hung around every word like mist. A sudden burst of raucous laughter from downstairs made him jump like he’d been struck, and his head snapped towards my bedroom door as if he was expecting a monster to walk through it. Great. Da’s brought Jimmy home. Ger’s skinny arms wrapped around his body, and I could hear the hissing of his hurried breathing.

‘Shush,’ I said, wriggling over in the bed. ‘Come on.’ I felt a graveyard draught down my neck as I struggled into the cold sheets, and did my best not to grimace. Only for you, little brother, I thought, as he scurried into the warm hollow I’d left behind.

‘Will they argue?’ he whispered once he was settled. I tucked the covers around him and wrapped his icy feet up in mine. I drew him close, trying not to feel how thin he was, and how threadbare his pyjamas had become. Until last year, I’d owned them. One of our cousins had known them new.

‘I don’t know, little man. Maybe. D’you think Da had drink on him?’

‘Why else would he be coming home this late?’

‘Yeah,’ I sighed. ‘You’re right.’

‘It’s going to start again, isn’t it,’ he said, his voice trembling.

‘Now, now. Don’t go borrowing worry,’ I said, imitating our mother’s voice. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear the tiny huff of breath as he nodded and smiled.

‘Yes, Ma,’ he teased.

A sudden thump from downstairs made us both jump. I could feel Ger trembling beside me, and I stroked his dark hair.

‘That was the sitting room door,’ he said. ‘Hitting the wall.’

‘All right! All right, missus!’ came a voice, bellowing up the stairs. Jimmy. We could hear Ma too, telling him to get out of her house and back to his own wife and family.

‘Now! Now!’ Da. ‘There’s no need to be going anywhere!’ His voice was loud and full of that particular laughter he only got after ten or twelve hours’ drinking. There were some muffled thumps, and then a huge, heavy body slammed against the banisters, shaking the whole house.

‘Right! I’m gone!’ called Jimmy, as if he’d paid a casual visit. ‘Good luck!’

‘Get out!’ That was Ma. The front door slammed. Then, the terrible silence began. Me and Ger, and the darkness in my room, all held our breaths. We knew what came next. The waiting was almost the worst part.

Just as I’d begun to wonder if it was going to start at all, the first slap sounded.

**

This is a story I’ve had for a long time, and I’ve often dithered over whether to make it public here. For some reason, it means a lot to me and it pulls at my heart like nothing else I’ve written. Clearly, something in it touches a memory, or a deep fear, or maybe even a nightmare I first had as a child. Whatever it is, for me this story is like a wound.

But I was lucky, as a child. My parents had their disagreements, like all parents do, but I was raised with so much love that it has shaped my whole life. I was never afraid, or beaten, or hurt; I always knew I had a home, and parents who loved me.

Some children don’t.

The ISPCC, which (in Ireland) runs the national, currently 24/7 Childline service, is at risk of having to close their night-time listening services to children due to a lack of funding. Night-time is the time when children need Childline the most. Night-time is the time when children can feel terrified not only of the dark, but of what’s in it, waiting. Childline is not a service just for ‘disadvantaged’ children, or ‘underprivileged’ ones – it is for all children. Some parents think their children will never need to contact a service like Childline, but I believe you simply never know what’s going on in your child’s life, and what they may need help with, and what they feel they can’t bring to their parents, no matter how much they love them. I don’t want to turn this story into a plea for help for a charity in a country that many of you don’t even live in, but I will say this:

Check out this website for some insight into what Childline does, and why it’s trying to raise money. If you feel able, there are links here to allow you to donate.

And if there’s a similar service in your own country, please try to donate to it, if you can. Even the smallest bit could make a huge difference.

We need to invest in our children. Leaving them alone when they need us most is a thought I can’t bear. Thanks for reading.

Confessions of an Introvert

Years ago, I had a colleague who was very tall, and who had a very ponderous mind (by which I mean it was occupied all the time with heavy, meaningful thoughts), and who spoke slowly when you asked him a question, as if he was drawing up your answer in a bucket from the deep well of his brain. He liked to speak in Greek and Latin, just because, and he was obsessed with etymology, and with dissecting words to such an extent that sometimes their meaning was lost. I asked him once, for instance, if he was a ‘fan’ of something; I can’t remember what, now. His answer was: ‘Well. Since ‘fan’ implies ‘fanatic’, then I’d have to say I’m not a fan of anything. Strictly speaking.’

Fair enough, Grumpy-Guts. Photo Credit: Novowyr via Compfight cc

Fair enough, Grumpy-Guts.
Photo Credit: Novowyr via Compfight cc

Despite all this, he was rather a nice man. I swear.

Anyway, one day we had a discussion about introverts versus extroverts, and it was he who first explained to me that ‘introverted’ didn’t always mean ‘shy’, simply put. He went to great lengths to explain the root meaning of the word (probably giving me a lesson in Greek and/or Latin, and possibly Aramaic, as we went), and he told me the word ‘introverted’ described a person who took time over their thought processes, and who didn’t like to make hurried decisions, and who enjoyed analysing things in their mind before proclaiming their stance on any issue. He also diagnosed me as an introvert, which annoyed me a bit, because I felt like I always made a huge effort to be bubbly and outgoing and friendly. I had been terribly shy as a child, and I’d made huge strides in my efforts to combat it – or so I thought.

But he was right.

The key word, above, is ‘effort’. While working in that job, I made a huge effort to be bubbly and friendly. This wasn’t because I didn’t really love the work, or truly enjoy the company of my colleagues (most of whom I also considered friends), but because I would have much preferred to spend my time with them in companionable silence, reading, than I would talking about whatever issue was occupying us at any given time. I love people, and I love to be friendly, and I love to have fun, but I’m still an introvert.

There are loads of ‘Are You an Introvert?’ tests you can take online, but I thought this one was interesting. I’d wager that a lot of people who like to write are introverted, because writing is one way to express yourself, but at a slight distance – you have the ‘shield’ of the words between you and the world, and even though they’re your words, and your name is attached to them, it nevertheless feels like there’s a little space between you and what you’re saying. If someone wants to comment on it, for instance, you have that crucial time to think before you make your response – and that’s the classic characteristic of an introvert. We don’t like to be rushed!

Even though ‘introverted’ isn’t simply a synonym for ‘shy’, as I once thought, certain aspects of the two are undeniably similar. I can be awkward with people I don’t know, purely because I’m afraid of causing offence without meaning to, and even though I relish meeting new people and I love being around people, I find it exhausting because I’m constantly self-monitoring to make sure I’m saying and doing the ‘right’ thing at all times. When I’m on the way home from a social gathering I’ll pick apart my ‘performance’, wincing over the silly things I’ve said or the mistakes I’ve made or the social gaffes I’ve put my foot in, and I’ll hope that nobody else noticed (or if they did, that they’re kind enough to let it slide). I love quiet, and solitude, and thinking-time; it doesn’t bore me or drive me crazy, like it would some people. I enjoy spending time with small groups, rather than big ones; I enjoy in-depth conversation, particularly on topics about which I’m passionate. I find it easy to focus, and I have to force myself to take risks. I hate making telephone calls, because I hate feeling like I’m being a nuisance (even though I’m aware that trying not to be a nuisance can sometimes make you into one). I always try to look at everything from all angles and make a decision (eventually) which suits the majority of people involved in it. This can drive other people mad, particularly when the question I’m being asked is something like ‘what will we have for dinner?’ but I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.

I’m never going to run a country, or take part in politics, or have ‘power’ or ‘success’, as some more extroverted people would measure it. I’m never going to be a leader, or someone who enjoys the limelight. But I love people, and I love gaining experience and knowledge, and I love finding new things to be passionate about. I love conversation, but I love silence too. I’m careful (some would say ‘doddery’, which is fair enough!), and punctual, and I like to take my time, and I like to do my best.

And that’s all right with me.

 

 

Scary Stories

This is going to be a hard blog post to write, not because I don’t feel strongly about the subject matter or care about what I’m going to say, but because I don’t want to identify anyone as I go. Let me just state at the outset, then, that the observations I want to make here relate to a general impression I have received lately, and I don’t want (and don’t intend) to make reference to any one person or piece of writing in what follows. (Also, this post is possibly triggering for violence, domestic violence and violence against women, though I’ve tried not to be too graphic, of course).

Photo Credit: olemartin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: olemartin via Compfight cc

So.

Over the last while, I’ve read several stories which take as their central focus the relationship between women and men. In general, they do not end well. The stories deal with rejection, and pain, and humiliation, and often they deal with death, sometimes self-inflicted. Some of them describe adult relationships, by which I simply mean ‘relationships between an adult woman and an adult man’; some of them describe relationships between teenage characters. In all cases, the stories were written by men.

I have read stories about young men being tormented by young women, made to feel ashamed and guilty for their romantic feelings, humiliated for expressing their softer emotions. I have read stories about college-age men being rejected by a woman in whom they were interested who then go on to take their own lives. I have read stories about men who feel used as playthings by unfeeling women who then take out their anger on one another.

And I have read a story about a man who murders a woman, simply because he can, and even as she lies dead on the floor he appraises the woman’s figure and attractiveness, and describes it for the reader.

I confess to feeling upset and slightly angered by these stories. Of course, I am the first to say that if writing something down makes a writer feel better, or if it expresses something deep within them, or if they feel they have something to say with the story they’re writing, then by all means they must write it. I don’t want to censor anyone’s creativity and I feel writing is a vital part of expressing what makes us human.

But, nevertheless.

These stories worry me.

They worry me because I’m afraid that the men who write them are basing them on their own experiences, and that they feel there’s nowhere else to express how they feel. They worry me because they echo so much else about our culture that worries me: misogyny in music videos; violence against women in computer games; women being seen as objects in magazines and newspapers and everywhere else you care to look; the rise of things like the men’s rights movement, which has sprung – in my opinion – from a profound misunderstanding of what feminism is about. They worry me because men, even some of those whom I love and hold dear, sometimes express ways of thinking about women which seem to me to be dangerous, reductive and upsetting, and the ways in which men and women interact in our world seems to me to be deeply out of balance. They worry me because, as stories, they are not questioning or interrogating or investigating the gender balance; they are not saying anything by making use of tropes of violence or abuse. They are simply describing what it feels like to be hurt, to be humiliated, to feel powerless – and how it feels to express your rage, whether it’s by causing injury to yourself, or a ‘lesser’ man, or a woman. One story in particular seemed to luxuriate in the destruction caused to the person of a female character, and I freely admit it disturbed me.

And here’s the thing: I’m a person who has read (and loved) Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece American Psycho, among others. I am not a prude, or someone whose finer sensibilities are thrown out of whack by a little blood. I am a person who has read, and relished, stories about men, women and violence – if they are saying something, at least something more nuanced than ‘this is how it feels to beat someone to death.’ American Psycho is a detailed and brilliant deconstruction of Western consumer culture, and it is skilfully created to allow the reader to both be and despise the serial killer Patrick Bateman, while at the same time constantly questioning whether he is even a reliable narrator – are his murders actually happening, or is he merely fantasising about them? In my opinion, it’s a work of genius, and while I understand you can’t compare a short story to a full-length novel, it should still be possible to express deeper thinking in a short story. A story about a man murdering a woman (or, indeed, a person of any gender murdering another person of any gender) should be about something else as well as merely a murder: it should be an artistic statement, an allegory, an image, a means of satire, a vehicle for expressing a deeper truth about human nature and/or society, and this is no easy thing to do. It takes a writer of unusual skill to pull off something so sophisticated.

If a story is simply about a man killing a woman, luxuriating in the detail, then to me it’s frightening, and it lingers on the border of voyeurism. If (as I’ve also come across recently, far too often) a story is about a man to whom everything comes easy, and who can have any woman he wants at the snap of a finger, and in which women are seen as mere dolls who exist purely for the pleasure of the narrator, then I’m afraid they hold no interest for me. Unless the author is skilled enough to use these tropes to make a statement about something larger, then stories like this blur the line into pornography, and there’s enough of that in the world already.

Thoughts? Am I over-thinking? Am I – even without meaning to – imposing my own values upon others? Am I guilty of censorship? I’d love to know what you make of this.

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Heap House’

The first thing I’ll say about Edward Carey’s Heap House is this: it’s unique.

Now, ‘unique’ is a funny word; it has connotations. You can use ‘unique’ to mean ‘so far out there it can’t be seen with the Hubble Telescope’ or ‘a precious and perfect little gem, complete in itself’, or something between the two extremes. I’m still not sure where Heap House fits in the grand spread of All the Books in the World, but I have definitely never read anything like it before.

Cover of 'Heap House'. Image credit: SJ O'Hart

Cover of ‘Heap House’. Image credit: SJ O’Hart

I’m not even sure how to synopsise it, but I’ll do my best.

In an alternative London in 1875, Heap House is the home of the Iremonger family, a long-established and (apparently) well-respected clan who have made their considerable fortune from the waste of the city. They scour through it for things, presumably to sell (though judging by the amount of stuff inside their home, you’d be forgiven for thinking they simply keep it all for themselves), and their house is made from reclaimed pieces of London itself, hammered and sawed and nailed together in a hodge-podge which somehow works, and holds together. My favourite character in this book – and there are many – is actually the house itself, which is why it pleases me that the book is named after it. The rooms, corridors, passageways, halls, chambers, thoroughfares, escutcheons, doors, locks, keys, walls, furnishings, crockery, fixtures, fittings, sconces and lintels of Heap House are all very much part of the story (and that sort of descriptive tic, the list, is very much in evidence throughout). The threat which hangs over the house is the most interesting part of the book, too. It comes near the end, which is a bit of a pity, but never mind.

Clod Iremonger is our ‘hero’, should I call him such a thing. He is a fifteen year old boy, still in short trousers at the start of the book, who has a good heart and a kind temperament. Like all Iremongers, Clod has a ‘birth object’, something which was given to him on the day of his birth and which he is supposed to keep with him at all times. Clod’s object is a bath plug. Its name is James Henry Hayward. His aunt Rosamud’s is a brass door handle, which Clod knows is called Alice Higgs, and so when it goes missing (a dreadful catastrophe), Clod is called upon to help in the search because of his great, and somewhat mistrusted, gift of being able to hear the birth objects’ voices.

Not all Iremongers can hear these voices, but Clod is one such. Each object is more than just a ‘thing’ to him; they all have names, which they repeat over and over. Clod has always wondered why each object has a name, though he has never thought to question it until one day, in the midst of the search for Aunt Rosamud’s door handle, he sits on a red sofa and it not only tells him its name, but it asks him a question. ‘Where’s Margaret?’ it says, and Clod – understandably – is left shaken. Something strange is starting to happen to the objects of Heap House; something is disturbing them. But what? And why?

The other main narrator of the book is a strong-willed, stubborn, rather morally dubious young woman by the name of Lucy Pennant. She is slightly older than Clod, plucked from her orphanage to come and live and work at Heap House because somewhere in her lineage there was an Iremonger. She is given a bed, a uniform, and a set of tasks when she takes up her employment and, as well as that, her name is taken from her – she is told she will be known, henceforward, simply as ‘Iremonger’. Lucy Pennant makes huge efforts, however, to hold onto her name, reminding herself of it and repeating it at every opportunity. She is also given a ‘birth object’, a sealed box of matches, but is not allowed to keep it on her person. Only the ‘Upiremongers’, or the family, are permitted to keep theirs with them.

As Clod struggles to cope with growing up (he is soon to be ‘trousered’, or presented with long pants and a wife in the shape of his obnoxious cousin Pinalippy), and the troubling noises being made by the objects all around him, as well as the bullying attention of his horrendous cousin Moorcus, Lucy struggles to figure out Heap House, its inhabitants, and their distinctly odd way of life. Couple this with the fact that the heaps (the mounds of rubbish all around the house) are stirring, a Gathering is coming (whatever that is), and something terrifying is beginning to happen to the objects – and the people – of Heap House.

Well, if that synopsis didn’t leave you boggle-eyed, you may be able to handle reading the book itself. It’s a strange creature, a book full of complicated syntax, several swear words, rather a lot of talk of marriage, lists upon lists of description, pages of dialogue (which are often very funny), a cast of thousands where not only the people but also every single thing has a name, and a strange, slow, meandering and distinctly action-free (until the end) plot. In short, it breaks pretty much all the ‘rules’ which are supposed to apply to children’s books, which leaves it in a strange place: to me, it’s like a piece of fantastical literature written for grown-ups, which happens to be peopled largely by a cast of children. I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed this book as a kid, and I was a voracious, wide and adventurous reader. In short, it’s a weird book. It’s imaginative, it’s definitely in a class of its own, it has great characters, each of which have fantastically distinct voices, and I really enjoyed the concept behind it. I particularly adore the questions it asks about humanity, identity, what happens when people begin to be treated as objects, and the sheer wastefulness of the average human life, wherein we accumulate more things than we will ever need, but I have to say that it’s slow, and it meanders, and it’s stuffed full of description (not all of which is necessary), and it’s confusing in places. I also spotted a few copy-editing errors, including referring to an object as ‘Gloria Emma Smart’ the first time it appears, and ‘Gloria Emma Utting’ thereafter, which annoyed me. At times I did struggle to continue reading, after a wonderfully gripping opening, but it was worth it for the end (which is great).

I’m not sure I’ll be back for the sequels – I think one book about the Iremonger clan is quite enough for me. But it’s a quirky, different and brave piece of literature, and I respect and admire it for that. I just don’t love it, and that’s a pity, but there you have it.