[Review] Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street
Where horror and compassion intertwine
I have been reviewing books intermittently between writing about film and balancing my day job for about a year, maybe a bit longer. Lately, though, with some shifting conditions in my circumstances I have found time to focus more on them than any other medium. Books have always been my first love and, while I have favorite little pockets to occupy, the most important thing to me — beyond genre conventions or expectations, beyond type of book — is the story itself. Can it make you feel something unexpected? Can it absorb you completely without your knowledge? Can it leave its mark on you long after you have stepped away from its pages? Catriona Ward can, and her latest novel, The Last House on Needless Street, is proof.
I have mentioned this before, but there is nothing quite like being so taken in and turned around by a story that you couldn’t even begin to guess where it will go next if you try. It’s what keeps us turning the pages and staying up into the wee hours of the night. Recently I have had the good fortune to be given opportunities to review the upcoming work of several novelists who seem to have developed the ability to keep readers on their toes at every turn to such a sharp edge we hardly even feel it sliding into our subconscious. Every time I think I’ve found my new first place favorite novel of the year, the next one I’m given comes to take its place — or at least nudge the others aside in willingness to tie. Needless Street, already out in the UK but releasing in the US on September 28th, clawed its way to the top of my list from first wildly uncomfortable page to last.
One of my favorite quotes to do with the horror genre talks about how it is necessarily rooted in sympathy. While it is possible to have good horror that does not contain sympathetic characters, the need for connection is there. We need to connect with something about the story in order for us to give it enough meaning that we want to carry on exploring it. Catriona Ward and her array of central characters inhabiting Needless Street seems intimately aware of this need, and of a way to play with it such that our sympathies flow along with even those we do not expect. It tells the story of a man, a cat, and a young girl; a family of a kind, all together in a house with holes instead of windows and tape recorders in the closets.
Talking about the plot of this book without accidentally divulging spoilers feels like an impossible feat and, even though it is out haunting the dreams of one part of the world, it wouldn’t be right to divulge those until everyone has had a chance to experience it for themselves. So, in lieu of that let me instead say this: while genre fiction of all media forms is rooted in the human need for sympathy and connection, it takes a passionately skilled hand and mind to costume those themes in horror that is capable of being repulsive on several different levels, even as it plays with your allegiances. I can with a fair degree of safety say I have never read anything quite like The Last House on Needless Street, and I feel it is unlikely that I will again. Within its pages are more than twists and turns. More than darkness. It is an exploration of trauma and its effects, alternately hopeless and hopeful, planting seeds of sympathy for people who, for much of the novel, we may feel almost wrong in sympathizing with, if we identify them the way our preconceived ideas of how it should work tell us to.
Ward paints a narrative that is both unforgiving and surprisingly, consistently, sensitive. To crack open the covers of this book is to begin on a journey that demands you bear witness to its deepest, darkest corners while guided along by a cast of characters who’s own worldview is but one piece of a constantly evolving puzzle. It is the first in some time I have both been unable to put down and needed to put away before bed. The first in some time to linger in my brain in such a way as to give me nightmares whose details I can’t fully recall the next day. And the first in an even longer while to manipulate my view of the plot in such a way as to force me to confront my own preformed notions on both story and expectations of villainy. The Last House on Needless Street can — and very well might — horrify and break your heart all at once.
While the UK can wander its halls and crevices now, The Last House on Needless Street will open its doors to US readers on September 28th, 2021 from Tor.
I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to review an ARC copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.