I am not the fastest reader in the land, but I read this book in two days. Yes, I did sleep and eat in between readings, but Mary and Sara’s stories enthralled me. As I got deeper in to the story there was a little something familiar about this book. Then I had my Eureka! moment. ‘The House of Ashes’ is the novel Ruth Rendell, writing as her alter-ego Barbara Vine, did not write! As with the Vine novels, the past is not dead and buried, and as with bodies too, the past can rise up to the surface and impact the present.
Sara is the present and in a coercive marriage. It is not until Mary arrives, dazed and confused, becomes the catalyst for Sara’s emancipation as her predicament mirrors that of Mary's sixty years ago. It is this symbiosis between Sara and Mary that leads both women to face their fears.
And Neville does it so subtly, ratcheting up that suspense in that remote house where nobody visits and the inhabitants eat and sleep within their own little world. There is something Gothic about this piece of work, there is a horror lurking, but you can’t quite not go there. You know the who, but as Rendell herself said many times, the ‘why’ is what interested her most. The same can be said for this book. Neville superbly shines a light on a turgid part of life, whilst bringing some light to the shadows where the children can be glimpsed. There is a supernatural element here, but it does not distract from what goes on in The Ashes. If anything, it highlights even more that evil comes in many guises and can be living right next door to you. Could the neighbours of the Wests imagine the horror perpetrated in 25 Cromwell Street? The same could be said for those living in The Ashes, the perpetrators and the victims under one roof.
What goes on in The Ashes unfortunately we have read about on TV and online. I won’t say more, but Neville doesn’t go for being sensationalist about his subject matter. Instead, he deals with nuances and the slow build up to violence. Neville details what happened in The Ashes sixty years ago, but it is the why and how that intrigued me and took control of me until I reached that final page. What happens in The Ashes is shocking, but also felt inevitable. After all this darkness, Neville does leave us with a ray of sunshine that sends the shadows scattering.
I never thought I would read such a powerful book in the first month of 2022. ‘The House of Ashes’ will be rolling around your mind for days, if not weeks. This is such a powerful book and for my money, will be one of the biggest of this year. Neville has set the bar extremely high.