Sunday, August 29, 2021

Indelible Darkness: THE HOUSE OF ASHES by Stuart Neville

In a fierce and powerful twist away from his crime fiction that roots in Ireland's "Troubles," Stuart Neville's September 7 release THE HOUSE OF ASHES (Soho Crime) is a stand-alone stirring the tides of domestic violence. Narrated in two time periods -- a dread-saturated present-day one of Sara Keane, newly arrived in Northern Ireland with an abusive and criminal husband (and his much more frightening father), and a set of multiple murder recollections from 60 years back, in the mind of the elderly Mary Jackson, more or less incarcerated in a "care" home -- this hardboiled thriller paints a shattering image of how absolute power becomes absolute control. Of life, itself.

More than the actual plot, the power of THE HOUSE OF ASHES comes from its blunt revelation of men's potential brutality. It's hard to connect this to the politically scented preceding Neville novels: There's nothing in either Sara's abusers (vintage mob-style dominators) or Mary's (three men who treat women as rape-able animals and kill of their babies) that can be tied directly to the emotional trauma of Irish life. Except one morsel, delivered early in the book through Sara's eyes:

[Sara] had met Damien at the University of Bath, he a postgrad architecture student, she in her second year of studying for a social work degree. She would never have imagined, even after they married, that she would come to live in the place he never ever called Northern Ireland. Always the North, the North of Ireland, sometimes the Six Counties, but never Northern Ireland. As if to speak its name would shame him.

Their move to a house that Damien's father has purchased and rebuilt for them—from a fire-struck wreck—is supposed to be a fresh start, removing Sara from the place where she'd had a breakdown and installing Damien as an architect in his father's property development firm.

But the arrival of a confused elderly woman at the house shatters Sara's preoccupation with staying obedient and blind, and as Mary Jackson's background becomes clear, Sara can't close her eyes to her own situation.

This is a work of psychological horror, drenched in blood, death, and sexual abuse. Perhaps only Stuart Neville could bend the arc of narrative in such a way as to make the story compelling. The terrors revealed and persisting match the book against such classics as Silence of the Lambs, but Neville leaves open the possibility that either Sara or Mary may escape the surrounding real-life nightmare.

It would be comforting to think that this fictional version is a wild exaggeration of abuse that doesn't actually take place in real life. Unfortunately, despite the persisting paranormal threads that are so classically Neville's, this crime novel makes real situations violently present and unforgettable. Read at your own risk ... but trust that the author also knows what impels survival and escape.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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