IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS
by Matt Bell
Soho Press; June 18, 2013
Hardcover, 312 pages
Source: Received for review
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.