Author: Catriona Ward (twitter)
UK Publisher: W&N
Genre: Gothic horror, historical fiction
She comes in the night. She looks into your eyes. One by one, she has taken us all.
For generations they have died young, and now fifteen-year-old Iris and her father are the last of the Villarca line. Confined to their lonely mansion on Dartmoor, they suffer their disease in isolation. But Iris breaks her promise to hide from the world and dares to fall in love.
It is only then that they understand the true horror of the Villarca curse, the curse of the bone-white woman who visits in the night, leaving death in her wake.
I mentioned in my review for Little Eve that I had first met Catriona Ward at Gollanczfest in 2017, and been hugely impressed with her panels and found her to be really friendly and utterly delightful. I resolved then and there to read her books, but I had thought Little Eve was the first move I made towards this, when it became available on Netgalley. I discovered I was wrong a few weeks ago when I decided to treat myself and finally buy Rawblood, only to discover I had already bought the kindle edition, it had just never been downloaded onto my device. I had no memory of buying it, so checked when I did it. November 2017. Within days of meeting Catriona Ward (if not the same day, there was… some wine involved), I had downloaded this book to read.
Which makes this review very overdue! First, though, some quick trigger warnings. This isn’t a happy book, my dudes. Particularly not if you’re a rabbit, but no-one does particularly well. The animal cruelty was what particularly made things difficult for me, but there is drug use, suicide, and graphic descriptions of mistreatment within an asylum.
Rawblood is very different from Little Eve – this is a properly gothic ghost story – however the opening narrative from Iris is beautifully similar to Eve’s in that it mirrors the tone of a small child in a bizarre situation, but pragmatising it and accepting it as normal because that’s what small children do. And in normalising it, it makes things more sinister every time something slips through. Little Eve was a wonderfully complex book with two parallel timelines bringing the story together, but Rawblood is like the Gordian knot. The first half of the book has two parallel narratives in different timelines, each with a distinct tone and voice, whilst the latter half of the book then spreads the tendrils further back in time to encompass anyone who had even briefly been mentioned in the first half of the book, whilst the final chapters pull it all together in a tragic, incredibly crafted bow.
One thing that always blows me away with Ward’s writing is how clearly fluent she is in the time and genre she writes in – not just the context, but the literature and the style. This is a mid-to-late Victorian Gothic Horror, Iris’s narrative begins in 1910, although it dips back into the years before that, and fully takes the tone of The Turn of the Screw – it’s never clear whether she is being haunted or not, whether it is all in her mind. The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898 – the perfect narrative influence. As Iris moves towards and beyond the First World War, her narrative takes the character of the ghost stories which came from the trenches too, eerie and otherworldly, witnessed but impossible. The shift is almost imperceptible, but there and expertly done.
The other narrative is a man called Charles, visiting Iris’s father at Rawblood in 1881. His voice is so different, rather than an internal monologue his work is diaries. It reads like Dracula (published 1897), or the works of Poe (writing between 1827 and 1849) and Lovecraft (writing between 1917 and 1939). Ward is so tonally precise and these chapters read as though they could be from the late Victorian period. They have pace, and mystery, and an absolute mastery of the reader. You could separate Charles’ and Iris’s chapters and publish them as separate books, they would still be perfect narratives, but by weaving the plot and the mystery between the two of them they become completely gripping.
Just the two distinct narratives and tones would be impressive enough, but at the halfway point there is another storyline introduced – Iris’s grandparents, perhaps 40 years earlier than Charles’ narrative. And here the style changes again – it becomes a late Regency Romance, although with a slightly gothic twist. But it is threaded with satire that wouldn’t be amiss in Austen, whilst weaving in the mystery, superstition and magic which was typical of a Victorian melodrama. It’s astounding and so perfect and effective – particularly as the melodrama element is then played up in the next narrative, Iris’s mother.
From here, Ward begins to gather the threads together. Through Iris’ mother’s narrative up to her birth, we learn more about the curse of the Villarcas, and see exactly how the tendrils spread out to anyone who comes into Rawblood’s sphere of influence. I spent a lot of the book trying to trace the clues to guess what would be coming – some things I got right, other things I could not have predicted in a million years. It looped and twisted and caught me by surprised continually, particularly as I made connections to characters who had only been mentioned in passing earlier, only for them to become key playing points in the story. Nothing at all was left to chance, everything was purposeful. It was absolutely masterful.
If you like gothic ghost stories, this is for you. If you like spooky stories, this is for you. Thematically, it’s so similar to the TV adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (I can’t speak for the book) that I almost wonder if they pinched ideas from this. The nature of madness, of hauntings, of ghosts and curses are all key themes and it’s wrapped up in the most wonderful, eerie and sinister packaging. It made my skin crawl in all the best ways, and made me aware of all the creaks in my house. Even if it didn’t turn out great for the rabbits.
- A pitch-perfect Victorian ghost story, which embraces the gothic but manages to use the styles of contemporary literature to show the progress of time within the narrative with effective subtlety.
- It’s beautifully creepy and chilling, but in the manner of a real ghost story like you told around a campfire, rather than some of the media coming out now which relies on gore and the grotesque.
- Those scratched out diary entries in Charles’ narrative may well be some of my favourite bits of the book because they so perfectly show the dual nature of the narrative – madness or ghosts?
Rating: 5/5 – I wound my husband up by continually telling him how much he was going to love this, and I made notes of all the bits I liked. There’s an Ibsen reference!