"It’s a unique masterpiece of suspense" The Last House on Needless Street book review by Melisande Aquilina
‘How many times can someone bend before they break forever? You have to take care, dealing with broken things; sometimes they give way, and break others in their turn’
Genre: Gothic Horror, Psychological Thriller
I have always had a soft spot for unreliable narrators. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories in the end, aren’t we? If, like me, you love a good conundrum, or a mesmerizing psychological mystery, and expect your horror stories to have a big reveal at the end, then read on because this book is definitely for you.
Fans of Shirley Jackson (who wrote The Haunting of Hill House and We have always lived in the Castle, among others), will simply go wild for Catriona Ward.
The fragmented narrative of The Last House on Needless Street is presented to the reader from the various perspectives of a number of different characters. It’s like discovering a bunch of faded photographs in an old trunk and trying to make sense of them by taping them all together. However instead of things becoming clearer as one reads on, the reader is drawn into a mysterious vortex of uncertainties which wraps around him with even more layers, until the difference between truth and perception becomes utterly entwined.
We meet Ted, a reclusive, emotionally scarred resident of Needless street, living in an old boarded up house full of memories. Ted is haunted by echoes of his mother and has blackouts when he ‘goes away’. We are told he is kind to animals and broken things, yet it is blatantly obvious that Ted is dealing with psychological issues he can’t come to terms with.
Then there is Olivia. I loved reading Olivia’s chapters because you see, Olivia is a cat. She and Ted are tied together with an inexplicable thread of love, and her perspective, although at times very funny and relatable, resonates with discordant undertones. There is definitely something wrong hovering around the last house on Needless Street.
The third main character is Dee. Dee’s six year old sister Lulu disappeared while they were swimming in the lake eleven years ago. No body was ever found, and Dee has spent the last decade looking for her sister and obsessing over any tiny detail that might lead to a kidnapper, a murderer, anything at all.
The reader witnesses Ted’s struggles with his daughter Lauren, which reflect much more than parental angst and are taut with emotional meaning. As are Dee’s incomplete childhood memories, which drive her like a shining beacon of rage and need.
Ted’s daughter is loud and difficult, and when she comes to visit, Olivia the cat always hides away in the broken unused refrigerator or under Ted’s bed. The lonely man’s only friends seem to be the birds he loves to feed and observe, yet at the beginning of the novel someone viciously sets a trap for the birds, senselessly murdering them just to hurt the lonely man. This menacing act of violence is the first act which introduces the novel.
This book is hard to review without giving any spoilers. Interspersed with clues, half-forgotten innuendos and characters who both want to forget their past and yet can’t help but remember some version of it – it’s a unique masterpiece of suspense. Cunningly plotted to lead the reader on a twisted carousel. Round and round we go, collecting hints and whispers of things which might have happened, or maybe not.
Ward’s prose is a pleasure to discover. Her atmospheric descriptions bring to mind the darkest of fairytales. The novel is a chilling journey into the human subconscious. The deeper one goes, the colder it gets. Labyrinthine and opaque, the narrative is a gem of suggestive darkness hidden by an almost desperate humour.
As the story progresses, the ever creeping feelings of unease, tension, dread and fear, build up and become stronger. Olivia and Lauren are terrified of going outside, where unfathomable dangers lurk everywhere. It took me a few chapters to get into the rhythm of this book, but once I did, I could not put it down. The chilling and discordant atmosphere permeating the pages kept me coming back for more. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it, mulling over what was real and what wasn't, and trying to puzzle it all out.
The Last House on Needless Street isn’t the sort of horror story that relies on gore or jump scares to terrify its readers. Instead, its darkness is primarily rooted in more mental frights. Readers are left unbalanced by sequences they don’t entirely understand and can’t completely trust, armed only with partial and imperfect knowledge. In reality, this is a story of trauma and survival, of guilt and hope. Gripping, heart-wrenching, and truly haunting. It followed me around in my head even after I had finished reading the book, until I unashamedly made up my mind to look up Ward’s other novels and read them too.