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In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods Paperback – May 27, 2014

3.5 out of 5 stars 46 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In his charmingly bizarre and disturbing debut novel, Bell (How They Were Found, 2010) paints an unorthodox portrait of a troubled marriage. An unnamed couple, recently wed, move to a remote woodland home to start a family amid nature’s serenity. The husband, once a fisherman by trade, labors with his hands. The wife creates things with her voice, singing physical objects into existence and altering nature’s course. Meanwhile, a mysterious bear lords over the surrounding woods. When the wife’s first pregnancy results in miscarriage, the husband covertly swallows the aborted fetus, which whispers cryptic commands and dark secrets to him, driving him to resent his equally enigmatic wife for her hope that she will someday give birth. They grow increasingly distant as she miscarries time and again, until at last she conceives a child that only drives the couple even further apart. Bell finds whimsy in despair and reality in the absurd in this absorbingly virtuosic near fairy tale about marital struggle and personal reclamation. The result is a novel of catastrophic beauty and staggering originality. --Jonathan Fullmer --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award
ABA Indie Next Pick
Flavorwire Staff Pick/Top 10 Debut of 2013
The Nervous Breakdown Book Club Selection

Praise for In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

“Mr. Bell has written a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergence from some kind of personal hell.”
—The New York Times

“It's hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious . . . Bell's novel isn't just a joy to read, it's also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years . . . The novel is a monument to the uniqueness of every relationship, the possibility that love itself can make the world better, though of course it's never easy.”

"Somber, incantatory sentences to hold you within [Bell's] dreamlike creation . . . This unique book leaves you with the haunting lesson that even if you renounce and cast away your loved ones, you can never disown the memory of your deeds."
The Wall Street Journal

"A blood-soaked fable . . . With this debut novel, Matt Bell [reworks] myths, rituals and fictions into something that can hold his visceral, primal vision. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods provides us with a new, unstable literary element, something scavenged from the old, something bright and wet and vital.”
The Globe and Mail

“For readers weary of literary fiction that dutifully obeys the laws of nature, here’s a story that stirs the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali with its claws . . . as gorgeous as it is devastating.”
—The Washington Post

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is an extraordinary achievement, telling a most ancient story in a way that feels uncannily new."
—The Boston Globe

"A big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away. The story's ferocity is matched by Matt Bell's glorious sentences: sinuous and darkly magical, they are taproots of the strange."
Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author of Arcadia

"This is a fiercely original book—at once intimate and epic, visceral and philosophical—that sent me scurrying for adjectives, for precedents, for cover. Matt Bell commands the page with bold, vigorous prose and may well have invented the pulse-pounding novel of ideas."
Jess Walter, National Book Award Finalist and author of Beautiful Ruins and We Live In Water

"Will haunt you long after you’ve read it, Bell’s novel mixes myth with a spooky, unsettling tone best described as 'Midwestern Borges' . . . something few writers, debut or otherwise, could so perfectly render."
Jason Diamond, Flavorwire Literary Editor

"Matt Bell does not write sentences—he writes spells. He is not a novelist—he is a mystic. This book, which will grip you in an otherworldly trance, reads like something divined from tea leaves or translated from a charcoal cipher on a cave wall." 
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon and The Wilding

"There is a power here that is almost overwhelming. The force of the writing is derived from something elemental and primal. Unlike anything I have read in a long time."

Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

"I have never come across a book that is so close to a dream state, with all the wildness and wonder and transfiguration that implies."
—Emily Temple

"Bell has crafted a terrifying and entirely spell-binding story about what it means to be a husband, a father, and, more simply, a man."
—The Daily Beast

"Bell puts the fable in fabulism . . . This spare, devastating novel . . . is as beautiful as it is ruinous. A tragedy of fantastic proportions, the book’s musical, often idiosyncratic prose will carry its readers into an unfamiliar but unforgettable world."
Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

"A deeply affecting, wildly inventive fable on parenthood and loss."
—Chicago Tribune

“A time and space warp compounded—a treatise on marriage and its couplings, fertility and lack thereof, gender roles and selfishness, all scaled to dimensions that distort easily, and bent between a set of covers . . . Genre-bending innovation that bucks convention and pushes out into strange and haunting new places.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

“Bell’s House Upon the Dirt is the type of novel that seems not only to invite a re-reading, but to encourage it as well. The book revels in its imaginative powers, and demonstrates that not only have the characters in Bell’s novel succeeded in fashioning a new universe from our everyday world, but Bell, as a novelist has too.”
—The Brooklyn Rail

“Grief can be so powerful that it makes its own reality . . . Bell writes with a singular voice—folkloric tone and syntax but also very much aware of the modernity that it is ignoring . . . it’s a gut punch.”
—Austin American Statesman

"House feels like a Tolkien epic set inside Plato's cave written by Carl Jung, and it's just as frustrating and mind-boggling and satisfying as you'd expect a book with that description to be."
—The Stranger

"A fantastical debut."
—Barnes and Noble Review

“Love is not all, but it always feels like it is . . . It's rare that somebody gets it right, which is why Matt Bell's debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is so remarkable. It's one of the most thoughtful recent works of fiction on a subject that defeats many writers before they pick up their pens.”
—Northwest Public Radio

“A powerful work of art . . . a horror story, a nightmare as repulsive as it is brilliant . . . you will be haunted by it.”
—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

"Wildly original."
—The Orgeonian

“Surreal and dark and heartbreaking and astoundingly, astoundingly beautiful . . . It’s a creation myth written with incantatory prose.”
Michele Filgate, New Hampshire Public Radio

"In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods expresses an absolute, singular understanding of the limits and compromises and compulsions of love." 
—Philadelphia City Paper

"A novel of catastrophic beauty and staggering originality."

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods shatters narrative convention to deliver an allegory with the compelling power of mythology . . . Though unrelentingly heartbreaking, this debut novel wrings such beauty from pain that readers will relish every shred of sorrow.”
—Shelf Awareness

"Challenging, boldly experimental."
—Publishers Weekly

"Matt Bell’s visionary debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and Woods is one of the most singularly strange and beautiful and wondrous books to come along in a long time . . .  [Bell] has invented an entirely new rhetoric of fiction and marked unique territory of his own."
—Tin House

"In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has an impressive wealth to share with its reader . . . It’s a gorgeous, bottomless book."

“A haunting and hypnotic fever-dream . . . [that] lays bare all of our unconscious anxieties and forces recognition of, if not a direct confrontation with, very basic and primal fears. One suspects a Jungian psychologist would have a field day with this book.”
—American Short Fiction

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is both visionary and self-reflexive, full of horrifying deeps but also soulful ones, and does not disappoint—though it does haunt, as a chronicle of a world coming apart.”
—Rain Taxi

"One of the year’s best novels . . . Bell keeps the narrative evolving, shifting groundrules and revealing more about his setting and characters. Disorienting and evocative, this is a fantastic reading experience."
Vol 1. Brooklyn

"Meticulously designed, with a particular focus on the musicality of its sentences . . . An unflinching portrait of the struggle to keep a family intact."
Kirkus Review

"In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a terrifying and wonderful fable."
—Flavorwire (STAFF PICK)

“I can’t decide which is more impressive: Bell’s boundless imagination or the spare-yet-lyrical, simply lovely way that he has woven words together to express it. Prepare to be mesmerized.”

"Bell cracks us in the mind's eye, drops us in inky waters, leaves us dripping with love potions and scarred from our innermost animal natures . . . In the tradition of Calvino, Borges, and Kafka, this is a mystic's tale—the gods here are most definitely crazy."
Interview Magazine

In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake And The Woods reads like a fairy tale with the emotion and psychology of a contemporary novel . . . [Bell keeps] his readers awake night after night. But it’s ok, because when you’re wrapped up in a Matt Bell story, you don’t want to sleep anyway.”
—Columbia Journal

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is dreamlike and fairy-tale-like and fable-like. But like dreams and fairy tales and fables, there is something recognizable and real at its heart.”
Fiction Writers Review

“It was heartbreaking and strange and sonorous, like being sung to sleep by something with far too many teeth.”
—Landon Mitchell, McNally Jackson Books

“In [the man and wife’s] opposition lies the heart of where all love falters—when wills clash and communication ceases. It’s as true in the magical house as it is in every other dwelling. We just don’t have mythical bear-children.”
—Spectrum Magazine

“Centuries of storytelling have left us with the typical fabulist female used as a device to define the male characters in the story, with no real definition of her own. In this novel . . . the tension hangs on what she desires . . . pulsing and glittering at the bottom of all that misery is a quiet kind of hope in the love that is buried and unearthed between the protagonist and his wife, a love that leads the reader back to the dirt, back to the woods and lake, and, in the end, lets us all rest if not comfortably—for that is absent here—at least peacefully.”
—Contrary Magazine

"Hallucinatorily original mythic story-telling for grown-ups."
—Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore

“Mystic and vivid.”
—Central Michigan Life

Praise for Matt Bell
"Gorgeous, brilliant, often darkly hilarious and always moving . . . Written with an ingenuity and joy that call to mind Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities."
Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
"No less original or thought-provoking than contemporary fabulist stalwarts like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, [he] expands the scope of experimental writing."
Fiction Writers Review
"Matt Bell can do what so many fiction writers can't: Matt Bell can make anything happen."
Michael Kimball, author of Big Ray
"Matt Bell has built a national reputation on his own terms, completely outside the support system of New York publishing, on the strength of his stories and novellas, which are wholly original and singularly his own."

"A compelling portrait both of the way a heated mind can come to recreate the world and of how fascination with such a mind can end up being its own sort of trap. A wonderful, obsessive novella."
Brian Evenson, author of The Open Curtain

"His wild manipulation of form and genre makes the bulk of contemporary fiction feel bloodless and inert in comparison."
Matthew Derby, author of Super Flat Times

"Bell brings us everything: symbolism, futurism à la David Ohle, devastation, surrealism, scenic energy, fractured fairytales, consumption, struggle, claustrophobia, and family decay . . . [But] Bell knows how to keep his world in check, his every word balanced against another, delicately, like a system of weights."
The Rumpus

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press (May 27, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616953721
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616953720
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #853,031 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard LeComte VINE VOICE on May 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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