In the House Upon the Dirt Between The Lake and the Woods

  • By Matt Bell
  • Soho Press
  • 312 pp.

Marriage, loss, and fairytales are at the heart of this lyrical debut.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between The Lake and the Woods

Traditional fairy tales do not tend to treat their protagonists easily; instead, they may dance away their feet or turn into sea foam. Author Matt Bell appears determined to insert new literary life into the grim genre with his debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between The Lake and the Woods, but he is not afraid to dabble in old-fashioned cruelty.

A man and a woman live in a remote house by the titular lake, and all they need to complete their simple existence is children — or so they think. But even the act of producing offspring can be fraught with uncertainty and difficulty, and the unnamed man and woman find their lives undone by their desire for a small bundle of life to fill the cradle the two have crafted together.

The husband and prospective father watches his wife grow round and happy with pregnancy, but she stops growing and the pregnancy mysteriously stalls, and she expels the baby far too early. Their would-be son is just a slip of a fetus, a “finger’s length of intended and aborted future.” The father makes to kiss his bud of a son goodbye but instead, driven by some strange compulsion, he swallows the creature whole. This fingerling, as he later calls it, takes up residence in his body and serves as a vindictive ghostly presence he conceals from his grieving wife.

A succession of failed pregnancies drains and depresses the wife, who channels her woe into magical song. Her powerful voice has the ability to add ornament to furniture or to create a matching set of bowls to fill their lonely, empty kitchen. But as the miscarriages continue, there are ominous signs. The couple’s bed widens every night, and when the wife carries a child that seems destined to come to term, she sings a new moon into the sky that will, she prophesies, not only shed light on the young family but someday fall. She promises that the moon will eventually end her sorrows, no matter the outcome of this pregnancy, by crashing to the earth to burn out the forest and empty out the lake.

The strange outcome of that last pregnancy is the crux of the rest of the story’s tragedy. In spite of what appears to have been another miscarriage, by some mysterious means the wife manages to have a son. The husband, meanwhile, has harbored the fingerling in his body, and the creature swims inside him whispering invectives against this new son. The husband and wife are driven apart by their sorrows and the husband’s inexplicable anger, and the marriage stretches to the breaking point.

In this strange, surreal story, the outcome is far more unusual than a shattered marriage. A sentient, disintegrating-yet-living bear and an ominous deep-water creature make important appearances, and all the while the heavy moon sung into being by the wife hangs over them.

Bell’s writing is both highly lyrical and dark. He can pen a beautiful sentence and embroider it with foreboding: “At last the sky was so dimmed and emptied of its ancient alphabet that we lost the shapes of even the oldest stories, the comforts of our parents’ myths, for now there was no more sky-bear, no tall-tree beside it or gold-crown to rest upon its head …” Much of the book feels like a nightmare, with events connected only loosely to their apparent causes and violence lurking everywhere.

Readers looking for a clear plot and sympathetic characters are likely to be disappointed. Bell is aiming for something more innovative, and he sacrifices readability. The husband, who narrates the story, is strangely angry and at times violent, while the wife is mysteriously passive and sullen. The husband pays a tremendous price for swallowing his miscarried son — an action that appears to be the result of a whim, nothing more. That ingested fingerling becomes a vengeful ghost, and every other character in the story pays a steep price painful to watch. For this reviewer, the agony of watching those characters suffer for little apparent reason makes the book a tough slog. And at times, Bell seems to be showing off his literary chops rather than telling a story. But those who enjoy surrealist stories or mining a novel for its themes will find much to occupy them.

Bell’s fairy tale is far more complex than “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel.” He asks us to think about the power dynamic in marriage, the meaning of memory, and our limited ability to understand one another. But his dreamlike story shares the simple morality of those tales. We pay for our sins, and the consequences are not always pretty.

Carrie Callaghan is a member of the Washington Independent Review of Books Editorial Board. Her fiction has appeared in the MacGuffin, Silk Road Review, and elsewhere.

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