Alison Littlewood has taken a risk in using a type of fractured tandem structure for her haunted house story. Supernatural tales are usually best left to a straightforward narrative that drives the reader along. But this isn’t a normal ghost story. This is a story of how ghosts are created and more importantly how they change the living world around them. The author took a risk and it paid off in spades.
The novel starts in present day. Nothing too unfamiliar here. A large country place called Mire House left in a will to Emma, a protagonist battling her own internal ghosts, a mystery surround the house and Charlie an uninvited relative from her childhood. While this territory may be familiar what follows is anything but.
The present is used like a framing device for two strands set in the past. The writing in the first part is haunting and beautifully written. It’s the kind of opening to a book that power companies love, as it’ll keep bedroom lights on all night across the country. Spectral visions, mysterious relatives showing up unannounced and terrifying events build to a horrifying crescendo. Then we’re swiftly transported back to the 1970s and meet a group of young boys daring each other to enter Mire House.
This is where we follow the path of the dark woman who haunts the house and the adjoining cemetery. We also follow Frank and his little brother Mossy. This Yorkshire childhood of the 1970s is so well observed it reminded me of Bill Naughton’s tales of childhood. But Alison Littlewood never allows you enjoy the exploits of these young scamps for too long without reminding you of the ghosts that lurk and the dangers they pose.
The boys adventure ends in a deeply realized sadness that is as emotionally powerful as it is creepy. The author hints at a history that came even earlier during the youth of Frank and Mossy’s mother Aggie.
And that’s where we are taken in the next part. It’s 1939 and all is well in a summer filled world of hard toil and happiness. Aggie is a young woman living on her parent’s farm but dreaming of her new job in the recently built More House. Of course the times they are a changing. The outbreak of war, tragedy at the big house and her brother enlisting cast dark clouds across the summer sun.
What follows is a long and beautiful history of Mire house that read like Laurie Lee writing horror. Alison Littlewood explains the ghosts and the reasons they exist. The shadows, the silences and the hate that are part of it all. This is a ghost story about humans. A changing of seasons examination of pain. We meet and revisit so many characters in this part that everything starts falling into place. We finally understand through the sprawling years and events why Mire House is so bleak and cursed. At least we think we understand. It’s the core of the story, the development of the events that begin and end With Emma Dean.
When we finally catch up with Emma she’s still battling with Mire House and Charlie her long forgotten relative. She finds bonds are easy to find but are difficult to maintain. With doubts and fear about her own part in the history of the house she tries to find her place. This leads to a breathtaking end which examines how loneliness and love may be the driving forces of the hauntings. Though we never know which it is or if they are both linked together. The author evokes ennui and warmth in unison; a mix that makes us question everything we’ve ever thought about ghosts
Alison Littlewood may be compared to many writers with the release of The Unquiet House, as any writer offering a haunted house tale would. But you can rest assured this third novel will set her apart on her own. It’s the type of book that elevates a writer into their own sphere. The Unquiet House is a book about the changing seasons of life, of ghosts who were haunted and haunting long before they were dead.
The Unquiet House is a novel that will be making big noises. I highly recommend you find out why for yourself.