Author: Catriona Ward (twitter)
UK Publisher: W&N
Genre: Horror, fiction
Release Date: 26th July 2018
Eve and Dinah are everything to one another, never parted day or night. They are raised among the Children, a community of strays and orphans ruled by a mysterious figure they call Uncle. All they know is the grey Isle of Altnaharra which sits in the black sea off the wildest coast of Scotland.
Eve loves the free, savage life of the Isle and longs to inherit Uncle’s power. She is untroubled save by her dreams; of soft arms and a woman singing. Dinah longs for something other.
But the world is at war and cannot be kept at bay. As the solitude of Altnaharra is broken, Eve’s faith and sanity fracture. In a great storm, in the depths of winter, as the old year dies, the locals discover a devastating scene on the Isle.
Eve and Dinah’s accounts of that night contradict and intertwine. As past and present converge, only one woman can be telling the truth. Who is guilty, who innocent?
I am not the usual market for horror books. I generally avoid horror films, and I have never actually read a horror book myself. I read one very dark fantasy book when I was a kid (The Oaken Throne, by Robin Jarvis, which felt brutal for my age) and that put the wiggins in me for weeks. However, I was fortunate enough to meet Catriona Ward at Gollanczfest last November, and she was an excellent advertisement for her books. Her debut, Rawblood, won the award for Best Horror Novel at the British Fantasy Awards in 2016, and was WH Smith’s Fresh Talent Title in autumn that year. When her latest book, Little Eve, was made available on Netgalley I was excited and nervous. A book about Bats and Squirrels gave me the heebie-jeebies, what would a real, age-appropriate horror book do?
The book is a split narrative, framed around a horrible multiple murder of the family at Altnaharra island, outside of the town of Loyal. A strange, secluded lot, they are found dead and laid out inside a stone circle on the grounds as if for a sacrifice – killed by Evelyn, one of the daughters, in her madness. One half of the narrative deals with the aftermath both immediate and in further years, through letters and diary entries from Dinah, the sole survivor; the other half follows Eve as a child, moving steadily towards the murder and making more sense of Dinah’s letters, but also making it clear that at least one of these accounts is unreliable.
Set on the far north coast of Scotland, the time starting during World War One, and taking us past the end of World War Two, Eve and Dinah are trapped – willingly or otherwise at various points – in the family established by John Bearings, who has created his own isolationist cult, with two women – Alice and Norah – and four children that they ‘rescued’ from orphanages or mothers who did not want them. They worship snakes, and through a ritual of starvation and cleansings, pray for the day when a giant snake will rise from the sea. Eve hopes to take John’s place as the ‘Adder’, the leader of their group, and this drives her through the book.
In light of the above, I will say that the book contains triggering content regarding child abuse, both physical and psychological, and regarding food – starvation, food control etc. Whilst Eve is embedded in the situation, and it seems normal to her, as a reader you become gradually more aware of the situation little by little, and become more and more horrified by the realities of it. And it is slowly and carefully done – the whole book and setting are so atmospheric, and the narrative is so strange. You are aware to begin with that things are… strange with the Altnaharra family, but as the story continues more things become revealed. However, Eve is never shocked by any of it, which brings this strange cognitive dissonance as a reader where you read something explained in a very matter-of-fact way, but then process the reality of what has happened.
I really enjoyed this book – it was exactly the right level of gothic creepiness for me, without giving me the total screaming wiggins. Instead I just enjoyed that sort of crawling creeping sensation that kept me at just the right level of uncomfortable, and I plowed through it in a few days. I became completely invested in the characters, and even though I knew the ending – because the book starts with the ending – I somehow still found myself hoping that things would work out, that something would make it better, and that the beginning was a misdirection. In some ways I think this doubles as a mystery novel, not so much a ‘whodunit’ as a ‘how-and-why-dunit’, and I loved seeing it all picked apart.
- An atmospheric, perfectly creepy gothic-style horror.
- Opening with the deaths is an unusual move, but watching the narrative unravel to bring us up to that point is wonderful, and despite knowing the end game I couldn’t predict some of the turns the plot took. Ward does an amazing job of winding the plot out slowly without giving away too much at once, or being predictable.
- The book is easy to read as well, it doesn’t ever feel too slow or dense, and flows nicely from the page.
- I’ll admit I’m not aware of the horror market more broadly, so I can’t say how it fits in, but for me I thought this was a great piece of writing – and for a book outside my comfort zone it never once felt awkward to read. It was the perfect introduction.
Rating: 5/5 – This was the perfect introduction to the horror genre for me, and I will definitely be reading Rawblood – I won’t be so nervous about it now!
Little Eve is released on 26th July 2018.