Matt Bell's novel takes place in a mytho-poetic realm that appears to be an extended metaphor about marriage. In an isolated house in some dirt by a lake -- all of which have their own secrets -- a man and a woman try to start a family. Bell eschews specifics to create a kind of Green World, a forested area of dreams and nightmares in which the man's hunting and fishing, the woman's ability to sing objects, stars and even a moon into life, and a mysterious and threatening bear all play a part. The couple try to have children, but all their attempts save the last end in miscarriages -- the first, through the bizarre act of the husband, becomes another character, a kind of anti-conscience prodding the husband to lose his love for his wife.
The novel is at times hypnotic, at times repetitive and at times gross. With characters this mythic, one comes to believe that Bell is saying something about marriage and children, and readers will come to their own conclusions about what that statement is. In the meantime, you'll need to adjust your reading to Bell's unusual style.
While the praise this novel has garnered is somewhat overwrought, even by the hyperbolic standards of blurbs (come on: Calvino? Borges? Kafka?!), the book is very, very good, and at least one blurber, Benjamin Percy, gets it precisely right: "Matt Bell does not write sentences--he writes spells. . . . This book . . . will grip you in an otherworldly trance." And that's just what Bell's prose does. It grips you. Its weird constructions and odd juxtapositions, its jarring cadences and surprising rhythms entrance you, weave a spell over you, almost from the very first word, and the book doesn't let go until the very end, until Bell has told his strange, inventive tale in his strange inventive prose. No: it doesn't let go even then.
on June 27, 2013
Matt Bell's IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS presents a lengthy fairy tale about love, loss and lies. It's violent, dark and utterly heartbreaking.
The story centers on an unnamed husband and wife who eschew their families' society beyond the mountains for a mystical world of their own. While most couples figuratively set out to create their own world, this couple does so literally. They live in a cave, while he builds their home and they begin to plan their family.
This mythic world is far removed from our own. She is able to sing things to life and into existence, even at one point a looming second moon that carries a promise and a threat. There is a menacing, sentient bear roaming and ruling the woods, while a squid haunts the lake. He fishes for their dinner, and she sings to create their household needs.
At last they are expecting, but the pregnancy ends in a miscarriage. In the first of many shocking acts by the narrator, he consumes the stillborn child while his wife is unconscious. He wants the child to be a part of him, as it had been a part of his wife. From this point forward, the potential of that child never leaves the husband and is a constant reminder of what could have been. He gives a voice to the husband's darker impulses.
They suffer many failed attempts at having children. She announces she is pregnant a final time. There is a son, but the husband is immediately suspicious about the child's origin. From here, the deceptions and betrayals between them pile up.
As their emotional relationship changes, so their world changes around them. The house grows larger, emptier. The bear begins to encroach upon the house. The wife's appetites turn bloodier, as she rejects the fish caught by her husband for her. Their child fears the father. The lost child in the husband sows doubt and discontent in his father. They even betray the creatures and the order of the world around them.
IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS gives the reader intriguing metaphors for what it means to have a marriage, to be a parent, to suffer a miscarriage, and to grow apart. It evokes the sense of living with the memory and consequence of one's actions.The language, tone and events of the book are biblical or mythological. Every change in their relationship marks a change in their physical world. In the words of the husband, "And now our story was ending, and so also its world."
In a clever juxtaposition, because their world is so small, each element becomes monumentally important. There are no wasted moments or characters to be found. Bear or Lake or Moon take on far more meaning than they would to characters in the regular, physical world. Each element becomes an embodiment of anger or violence or heartbreak.
The book wisely denies the reader and the characters easy resolutions, but does offer at least a glimmer of hope. Bell has crafted a frightening world inhabited by complex and imperfect characters, and by doing so, he has also written a wonderful novel.
Reviewed by Josh Mallory
on July 2, 2013
Reading like a twisted fairy tale, Matt Bell's debut novel is about a newly-wed couple who leave the bustling city that had been their home to make a new life in the land on the other side of the mountains. Embracing a life of simplicity, the husband, our narrator, builds a house upon the dirt using only basic tools. His wife furnishes their humble home with the objects she magically sings into being. The young couple desires to start a family, but the wife's repeated miscarriages lead to deep splinters in their relationship.
This is a tricky book to write about. I'm not sure how much I should say about the plot, so I'm not giving away anything that isn't already in the book's blurb. This is really only a tiny portion of the novel, but if I went on any farther, you would probably think I was talking about a strange fever dream and not an actual book. It's that surreal. I will say, though, that there is a giant bear in the woods, a squid/whale in the depths of the lake, and a labyrinthine series of chambers filled with memories under the house.
In addition to being unsure of how to write about this book, I'm not entirely sure how I felt about it. On one hand, the writing is absolutely beautiful, and man can Bell construct a sentence. His words are poetic and the book's tone evokes the magical fables of old. On the other hand, this book is very dark and disturbing; there were some grotesque descriptions that made me feel nauseated. Let's just say they involved dead fetuses, ghost children, and horrible, disfiguring injuries. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
I also thought there were some problems with the plotting and pacing. I had no idea where this book was going most of the time, and I would have liked more momentum to propel me forward in my reading. Come to think of it, though, this actually fits pretty well with the surreal, dream-like quality of this narrative.
In the House Upon the Dirt contains really interesting ideas about desire, regret, marriage, and fatherhood, but sometimes they felt muddled and repetitive. However, Matt Bell does have a very strong voice, and there is a burning power behind his words.
I usually love books with elements of surrealism or magical realism, like The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel, Understories by Tim Horvath, anything by Karen Russell, and some of Murakami's books, but I think this one was a bit too warped for my taste. I would recommend this novel to fans of fabulism who also have a strong stomach and an interest in the dark side of the psyche.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review on Books Speak Volumes, a book blog.
on April 20, 2014
Definitely a book that you can tell if you're going to like it in the first 10 pages. If you read the opening and you're captivated by the prose, you'll probably get through it and give it at least three stars or even more. Personally, I wasn't turned off, but I was less impressed than some of those giving more-starred reviews. If it's poetry, it's a particularly strained kind of verse. James Salter is poetry in prose to me. This read like an attempt to gussy up a pretty bland domestic mini-drama in some myth, but if you peel back the layers, there's no there, there.
I'm assuming the author is a little green, without the hard won experiences that give him much to write about, and the effort to turn a simplistic and one-dimensional world view into the stuff of legend shows. This might've made a much more effective novella or long short story. There was just enough zest to get me through, though I started skimming to see if it could find a different register and was disappointed, otherwise it might've gotten to three stars for me.
I can see why it was published, it makes an effort at being different, but different doesn't always equate to interesting or meaningful. I'd heard some good buzz about this writer. I wish there'd been more seasoning before he was introduced to the world.
on January 30, 2014
I read the first 90 pages even though I was not enjoying the book and at that point I just gave up. It is way too strange for me and I would recommend skipping this one. There are so many good books out there!
Though IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS may be written in a lyrical, poetic style this does not make up for a storyline that is so strange that at times it is almost incomprehensible. Yes, this is an original book and is at times shocking and disturbing but such traits do not always equate with good or even readable fiction. The main character engages in a repulsive act near the beginning of the novel (and repercussions of it echo throughout the story) that will likely turn many prospective readers' stomachs and gave me an even more negative opinion of the book. Even the too long title of the pretentious and self-consciously weird little novel annoyed me. I can't give it more than one star as truthfully I hated it.
on June 21, 2013
This is, at its core, the story of a married couple who miscarries too many times for their marriage to survive intact, and who begin to take drastic steps away from each other because of it. However, this story is told in a magical world inhabited only by the two of them, an armored bear and a giant squid, an extra moon the wife sings into the sky, and the strange half- and ghost-children they collect around them. It's a fairytale for the modern world.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting to like this book as much as I did--I knew it was being exalted for its experimental prose and wasn't sure it would be my cup of tea. Very, very pleasantly surprised (and also fairly heartbroken) to find that the author uses ostensible mythologizing/fabulism to capture something so real: the feeling of a once-close relationship that is failing because of irreparable distrust, and the awful heaviness of realizing it is too late to seek redemption from the person you care about.
Highly recommended--unlike anything else I've ever read.
on April 28, 2016
It's hard to know what to say about In The House etc etc. The book is a nightmare, but in a good way, if that's possible.
There are a few books I've read that I think are not like any other book, or like each other. A Short Sharp Shock was one. 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses was another. Foucault's Pendulum, and The Rathbones were a couple of them. When you happen on one of these books, it's like turning over a rock or standing on your head and looking at your backyard or driving through a thunderstorm or maybe all three of those things at once: books like this reveal something, look at things differently, attack everything around you violently even as you sit, sheltered, away from the maelstrom.
When I was a kid, when I was like 14, I had a nightmare. I remember it now, more than three decades later. In the nightmare, I was running down a snowy hill, through pine trees. The snow wasn't deep; it was only up to my ankles, and served more as a slight impediment and a way of blurring out the scene. I kept running and running . It wasn't one of those dreams where you can't move or you never get anyway. Quite the opposite: I ran fast, and a long way, looking over my shoulder all the time to try to see whoever was chasing me. At one point, though, just as I turned back to look where I was heading, a man in a ski mask leaped out from behind a tree and stabbed me in the side.
I woke up, instantly. I didn't feel scared. I wasn't breathing heavily, or sweating, and hadn't screamed. I was just, instantly, and completely, awake. I went down the hall to the bathroom to get a drink of water, and turned on the light. It was only then that I realized I was holding my hand over my side, right where I'd been stabbed, in the dream. I kept looking at my hand in the mirror, telling myself it was okay to take my hand off, that it had only been a dream, but I didn't, for a long time, and then when I finally did move my hand, and saw only unbroken skin, I let out a huge breath: I'd been holding my breath as I wondered what I would do.
That dream remains crystal clear to me even now, an unreal experience that I can recall every detail of, right down to exactly where I held my hand.
In the way a dream like that can stick with you and taunt you with what your subconscious is thinking about, in the all the subtle ways a completely fictional experience can shape your perceptions of yourself and your world: that is how In The House... affected me.
It's not an easy book to read, In The House... and not a comforting one. But I'm glad I read it. I don't know that I'd ever read it again; in that way the book is like my visit to the Holocaust Museum: an experience I feel like I should have, but not one I'd want to repeat.
All that said, it is an excellent excellent book. It is a book that I think deserves to be far more widely known than it is already, because people should know that storytelling this powerful and unsettling exists. It's a book that opens up a new possible.
The plot of the book is sort of secondary, and doesn't do the book justice. In a nutshell, a man and a woman -- they're never named, although hints about the woman's name are given and made me think maybe I was right about this being, in part, a retelling of a bible story -- move to a wilderness area, between a lake and the woods. They plan to raise a family and live there alone, but events overtake them and the resultant story is both fantastic and terrible in its unfolding.
That mundane description, though, doesn't explain the poetry of the book, both in the language used (Matt Bell is a wonderful writer) and in the way the world acts around the man and the woman, and the way they act. The woman can sing things into existence, while the man, cruder, must build and hunt and trap. Their efforts to have a family eventually tear into their relationshp, causing the woman to wreak havoc with reality, while the man has run-ins with a bear and a monster in the lake.
From there, the story gets ever more compelling and more extraordinarily irrational. It would spoil too much to say what happens, but stars fall from the sky, there is a phenomenal showdown between the man and the various beasts, a descent into almost-literal madness, and the creation of whole new worlds within other worlds. It's amazing.
It's also very, very dark. It's like the Brothers Grimm decided to retell all the scariest stories humanity has ever come up with, or like Edgar Allan Poe's fever dream. It was a book that I read only in short sittings; after 30 or 45 minutes I had to come up for air and do something else for a while.
It's not a book for everyone. It's a real challenge, reading it, but each page is more compelling than the last. The story just kept getting better and better, more and more astonishing, and each time I thought okay we're on our way back down now things just escalated even more to greater heights... or depths, I guess, as large parts of the story take place underground in the 'deep house' or even lower, below a giant staircase that descends so far into the earth that time actually stops meaning anything for a while... until the story comes to an ending rather abruptly, in a way that makes perfect sense.
I think it's very much worth trying to read it. If you get two or three pages into it, you'll either not want to stop or will give it up right away; it's that kind of a book. It's totally worth it, though. I don't think I'll ever forget the bear, and the lake monster, and the children... oh man, the children! If you thought kids in movies like Children of the Corn or Goodnight Mommy were freaky, wait until you get to the part in this book where there are hundreds, if not more, children of varying shapes and sizes keeping the man from entering the woods and attacking each other and singing, each, a single note of a song over and over. Images like that will stay with me for a long, long time. Maybe forever. I can sit here and remember the arc of the story, the lake battle, the descent and subsequent ascent through the deep house, and feel a sort of dread. It's not a bad feeling in a sense: reading books like this is the modern equivalent of a Grimm story or Beowulf. It's a way of connecting to a more primal feeling within us, the subconscious that makes us who we are even when we don't understand why it is doing so. In digging up dreadful images and descrescendoes of terror, remorse, and guilt, a book like this reminds us of the darkness our lives could be, and makes you more grateful when you look up from it and realize you're not in a house made up of rooms each of which has one thing in it, and that one thing is a mockery of what life should be. No, you're in your own house where nature is not a terrifying set of half-dead animals rising from their graves, where children do not need to be sung into proper shapes. Reading this book is a journey into elemental forms of emotion that you surface from like a kid diving as far down as he can in a deep cold lake only to swim to the surface as quickly as he can to make sure the sun still exists and he can still breathe.
I don't think I'll ever forget it. I don't think it's the kind of book you can forget. I'm not sure I'd want to, though, even if I could.
on July 31, 2013
In the beginning, the poetic language Bell has chosen to use was beautiful and beguiling. But it was something that seemed as though it should have been a preamble. After a chapter it began to cloy and, finally, I just couldn't stand it anymore. I wanted to shout: "Get on with the story, already!"' Now I'm an avid reader and a lover of language and the beautifully turned phrase, but I think that style should never be the object of the book itself, or interfere with the storyline. I confess I ordered this book off the great reviews and didn't, as is my custom, "look inside" for a perspective on what I would be getting. In the end I couldn't read the book and asked for a refund (a great rarity with me). I'd like to suggest that buyers of this book do due diligence by checking it out first so they won't end up like me - disappointed.