BOOK REC: The Last House On Needless Street – Catriona Ward

Author: Catriona Ward (twitter)

UK Publisher: Viper Books

Genre: Horror, thriller

See Also: Little Eve | Rawblood

This is the story of a murderer. A stolen child. Revenge. This is the story of Ted, who lives with his daughter Lauren and his cat Olivia in an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street.

All these things are true. And yet some of them are lies.

You think you know what’s inside the last house on Needless Street. You think you’ve read this story before. In the dark forest at the end of Needless Street, something lies buried. But it’s not what you think…

This book is very different from Catriona Ward’s other books, and I’ll be honest, it caught me a little off guard to begin with. Both Rawblood and Little Eve are historical novels with a strong Victorian Gothic feel to them. There’s something about that historical divide that adds to the otherworldliness of the settings, and somehow that makes it more comfortable as a reader. It’s a spooky story, but it happened so long ago it’s safe now. That’s not the case with The Last House On Needless Street, it’s a contemporary setting, and that immediately pushed past the little safety zone I had and started me out off-balance and uncomfortable.

I have no doubt that this discomfort was intentional, given the style of the book. Where some books start close and then expand to allow the reader to see more, or begin with a wider narrative to allow the reader to orientate themselves before moving inwards, Needless Street starts very close – too close for comfort – and stays there. It felt like reading a story under full zoom, and being unable to step back or pull out to get a sense of where I was at any point. Ward begins by pressing you as close to the character as you can get, and then stays there. Your field of vision is narrow, as restricted as each character’s, and at no point are you given the relief of a narrator who is removed from the situation, who can give you a bit of balance and space. The story is told through a peephole, and you alternately are desperate to see more and you want to look away.

One of Ward’s incredible skills is the way she is perfectly able to pitch-perfectly write a book for any genre or time period. In Rawblood she manages to channel Lovecraft with panache in the appropriate time period, adjusting her style for each subsequent jump in time. In Little Eve, it’s a ghost story/mystery on par with Shirley Jackson. And Needless Street opens like a quintessential murder-thriller – a strange, oddly-socialised man, living alone in a rundown house, weirdly fixated on his mother, and previously associated with the disappearance of a young girl several years ago, but no evidence was found and the case went cold. The feelings the opening evokes are the same as those I got watching One Hour Photo, it has notes of Norman Bates, and of the outsiders they follow in Mindhunter. But, this being Ward, nothing is a simple as it appears from the opening.

It’s difficult to discuss more about this book without giving away the levels of twists and turns behind it, but the layers that are built between the different narrators and the references they make to each other are intricate. Ward keeps you close and gives you all the information, but never allows you the space to see how it all connects, instead forcing you to play into your own expectations of tropes and tie yourself in your own knots. She preys on the reader’s prejudices and conditioning, but keeps the cards otherwise very close to her chest.

The narrators are all unashamedly biased as well. Each one has a very heavy lens over their perspective, so swapping POV doesn’t immediately refute anything the previous narrator has set up. Everyone in this book has their own all-encompassing motivations and drives, to the point that they never consider any other explanation for anything could be possible. Ward has clearly enjoyed herself with making each character so staggeringly unreliable, in a way I’ve not seen an author do in quite such an emphatic manner, while at the same time making them all sympathetic and continuing the consistencies (and key inconsistencies) through every chapter. It’s such a work of controlled perspective I was staggered by the time I got to the end and she let the curtain fall away.

This is an emotionally intense book. It probably sounds strange to say, but I found the proximity of the narrative very hard – I felt like I was being pressed right up to these characters and I just wanted to step back and take a breath. But it’s not meant to be a book that makes you feel comfortable, it’s about harrowing, horrible things, trauma and the aftermath. You can argue that if you felt comfortable reading it, it’s not done its job. Just be aware that if you are someone with triggers around certain subjects, this is a book that doesn’t shy away from darkness.

I found Ward’s author’s note at the end extremely moving, and the perfect aftermath to calm me down after the speedrun I did towards the ending. I felt wrung out and a bit exhausted, so taking the time to read the note that contextualised her research, that was kind and calm, gave me space to process the revelations of the ending. It’s not an ending without tragedy, but it does have a sense of hope too. After reading a book that keeps your perspective so narrow the whole way through, and then gives you that ending… it’s like you’ve been kept in a small, dark, stuffy place for too long, and then stepped out into the light and fresh air.

Briefly:

  • A dark, intense mystery thriller that exploits the reader’s own genre prejudices to build a complex story that hides its secrets until the very end.
  • Its descriptions are visceral and vivid, but Ward manages to keep the reader feeling like you’re wandering around with blinders on even with such rich detail.
  • It’s radically different in tone and setting from Little Eve and Rawblood, but it shares a number of common themes and ideas that Ward explores with the same care and thought.

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