A not-quite book review book review.
There are rules; I know, I know.
A book review is supposed to focus on the success or failure of the novel. It’s a bit of a glorified book report: what did the author mean to accomplish? Did he or she meet those objectives? If so, how (cite examples for your reasoning, with quotes). If not, explain why. Additional points for vitriol.
But this isn’t that sort of book review. This is… I don’t actually know. Let’s get on with it and maybe it’ll make sense by the end. (You take the risk that it won’t make any sense at all, of course. Caveat Emptor and all of that.)
The book in question is Martina Devlin’s delicious historical novel The House Where it Happened.
Let’s start off here: that’s a great title for a spooky novel. I like my spooky novels and I’ve read some great ones, but, frankly, they don’t always have great titles. The Exorcist. The Uninvited. The Others… Do you see a pattern developing here, Scully? But The House Where it Happened is immediately evocative. Instantly you want to know what ‘it’ is.
I’ve discussed the historical background to the story in a previous blog — Martina Devlin and the Witches — so I won’t belabour it here. I’ll just remind you that this novel tells the tale of Ireland’s only witch trial, a shameful event that occurred in County Antrim in 1711.
Confession time: I have two conflicting reactions to this book. Firstly, I am in awe of what Ms Devlin has accomplished. Creating a long-lost age with such sureness and precision is no small feat. The author doesn’t just bring Islandmagee in the early 18th century to life, she sets the reader in the middle of the nightmarish events experienced by the narrator Ellen and her household.
Which brings me to my other reaction: I’m mad jealous. (Don’t tell anyone. I’d like to carry off an air of professional indifference for as long as I can get away with it.)
Seriously, though, I must doff my favourite blue cap at Ms Devlin for not only mastering such a feat, but for making it look so easy. Damn her.
Unless you’ve attempted it, you cannot imagine how difficult it is to distill the essence of a bygone era into a work of fiction. I know something about this because my first two novels take place at the end of the 19th century. Oh, the late nights pouring over Victorian documents trying to figure out things like what a pillar box looked like in 1897, or how often post was delivered. Then, once the facts have been squeezed out of the parchment (or, ahem, the internet), there comes the challenge of drizzling these facts in exactly the right amount through the narrative. It’s like using a strong flavouring like anise. You need a light touch and a steady nerve.
Some writers do this extraordinarily well. Their research seems invisible, yet it’s always relevant and precise. Some fail to do enough or any research at all, and the ensuing plot holes, oh, my dear. (There was novel set in the Victorian period that caused unintended hilarity when the main character drew a packet of paper tissues from her purse.) On the other hand, you have those writers who’d rather conduct research than craft a work of fiction. You know who they are. These are the people who have to stop the story cold while they show off for eight pages about the structure, workings, and deficits of the muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket. This right in the middle of a battle scene. Hang on, Napoleon, I’ll be right there, as soon as I’ve done explaining firearms to my readers. Oh, hang on, she’s nodded off…
Happily, Ms Devlin falls into none of these traps and instead builds a world full of the sights, sounds and smells of the early 18th century. Oh, the smells! Stomach-churning, some of them. As a former health-care provider, I had to stop myself at times from crying, “I hope you washed your hands after you emptied that slop bucket!” It’s only fine writers who engage the heart and mind to this degree. It’s only the best who refrain from seeding their historical narrative with 21st century sensibilities. Did I mention I’m mad jealous?
Of course, when you’re dealing with real-life events, you have other problems to contend with. Fiction is tidy. Well, there are exceptions, but in general. Readers like to have clear-cut beginnings, middles and endings. We’re too sophisticated, we tell ourselves, to need ‘Once Upon A Time’ and ‘They Lived Happily Ever After’ as the framework for a tale, but we like to know, don’t we, that things have been resolved and that everyone did, in fact, live happily, etc?
Real life has a lot to answer for in this regard. It is not tidy. It sprawls over the edges, or fizzles out just as it was getting interesting. This was the case with the true story of Mary Dunlop, the apparently sweet young thing who was — again, apparently — the victim of witchcraft. History is silent regarding her fate. Likewise, history whistles and studies the sky when the question of Mary’s victims, sorry, witches, I meant the witches, comes up. Perhaps if they were men history would have paid more attention. But they, being women, being Irish, history really didn’t give a toss.
This silence poses a particular problem for the writer, and I’m sure some people may not care for the way Ms Devlin has resolved it. Her choices worked for me. I can’t say more without giving away spoilers, and I’d rather face four turns in the stocks than do that. OK, not four. Maybe one.
I wonder, when she was conducting her painstaking research into the story of the witches of Islandmagee, if Martina Devlin considered writing this as a non-fiction book. Perhaps she felt her imagination was so caught by the events that it needed the colours and shades of the novel to do them justice. And, indeed, she has done justice for the eight unfortunate victims of Islandmagee’s witch trials. More justice, by far, than the government either of the 18th century, or of the present day. Ms Devlin has given voice to the silent, and that is a proud achievement. The book is also a bloody good read.
It’s been a week or so since I finished The House Where It Happened, but it lingers with me. Not so much the creepiness of the fiction, but the real-life injustice of it all. I react to it the way I do to Ode to Billy Joe. You know, that Bobby Gentry song that no one really understands and yet makes everyone feel unsettled.
I should probably try to explain that. Then again, I told you this wasn’t that sort of book review.