When I fall in love with an author’s work, I go all the way. Catriona Ward, author of The Last House on Needless Street, and Sundial, has become one of those authors I really love, so when I found out she had a new book out, I rushed to get my hands on it. Technically, her “new” book, Little Eve, isn’t really new; it was written before Last House on Needless Street and won the Shirley Jackson prize for best novel the year it came out. However, this is the first time it’s been published in this country, so it’s “new” as far as I’m concerned.
I was wondering if this earlier book would be as good as her later work, and I’m happy to say that yes, it definitely is. I devoured Little Eve in a little more than a day because it has the same can’t-put-it-down plot, the same ambiguous characters and the same sense of overriding dread that forces the reader to keep going, however squeamishly.
A word of warning: the book starts with a bang, figuratively speaking: a local man discovering the dead bodies of the residents of an isolated castle arranged in a ritualistic way, with some mutilations, and one of those bodies turns out to be still alive. It’s an absolutely horrifying scene, grotesque and bloody, and if you can’t handle that opening, you should probably put the book down and try something else. The book isn’t gory, per se, but there is a lot of violence and body horror, and if that isn’t your thing, you will have a hard time with this book.
We start with what feels like the end, the ritual killings of the people who lived at the castle at Altnaharra, on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland. Gradually we find out about the people who lived there and the things they believed and did, and how we ended up at that scene. Interspersed with that story is the story of the survivor, Dinah, telling us how she dealt with the aftermath of her experiences at Altnaharra, and the story of the police officer who became involved with the family, and especially with Evelyn (the Little Eve of the title), before the tragedy.
The family is a cult, run by Uncle, who calls himself the Adder. He has complete power over the adult women and all the children, whose relationships with him and with each other are murky. Everyone is kept in line with a combination of promised rewards and immediate punishments. The promised reward is to be the Adder (the voice of the snake that controls the world in their cult); the punishments are horrific, including being shunned by everyone for periods of time and being locked in an underground room with their mouths sealed shut with pine pitch (!!), unable to eat, drink or speak for days on end. The “uncle” keeps everyone half starved and scared, and while the kids are sent to school on the mainland because the law requires it, they’re still isolated by the cult’s beliefs, as are the adult women who go into town to sell things from the island and buy the cult’s necessities.
As usual with Ward, the characters draw you in even as they creep you out. Evelyn is one of our narrators, and we start with the official story that she was the one who killed all the others in the ritual murder. She’s certainly strange, as anyone would be who grew up in this environment; sometimes you think she’s totally bought into Uncle’s stories and sometimes you think she might be considering breaking free. Since you start out with people claiming she’s the villain of the piece, as you read the parts of the story leading up to the murder, you find yourself wondering about her, wondering whether she could have done something like that, and how. She’s capable of terrible things; she’s indirectly the cause of two deaths that we know of, and she commits a horrific act on herself (you will never hear the phrase “an eye for an eye” without a shudder again).
And yet, this is Catriona Ward, so you’re on guard, because she’s so good at leading you to make assumptions about characters and then pulling the rug out from under those assumptions and making you see everything differently. The twists here aren’t as dramatic as those in Last House, but they are still powerful, and I’m not going to spoil any of them. Suffice it to say that Catriona Ward knows what she’s doing and nothing in the book is extraneous.
It’s an absolutely engrossing read, if you have a strong enough stomach and aren’t afraid of nightmares. It’s the season for horror, and Ward delivers a knockout horror novel here.