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Review: The House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods - Matt Bell

Updated: May 10, 2020

Genre: Magical Realism

Published: Soho Press, 2013

My Rating: 1/5 stars

"And even if she could not remember his face, she could remember his voice. How tonedeaf he was. How he spoke ceaselessly, because like most men he could not sing. And because he could not say anything without too many words"

- A rather ironic quote from the book...

Magical Realism tends to be a polarizing genre in itself, but when reviews are this divided, it’s bound to catch my attention. As an overall fan of this genre and all its metaphorical strangeness, I had fairly high hopes. Unfortunately, the higher those hopes, the deeper the disappointment.

The House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is almost impossible to accurately summarize, as it ultimately is more fairytale than traditional novel, and as such comes with quite some bizarre and gruesome imagery, as well as a great number of layers. On the surface, it’s a story about an unnamed newly-wed couple who leave their homeland behind to move to the uninhabited opposite shore of the lake. There they live off the land and build their new home from only the elements surrounding them. After a series of miscarriages the wife despair manifests in the ability to “sing” objects into existence; a second moon in the sky that signals the end of the world, a labyrinth of memorychambers underneath the house, and eventually… a foundling.

Beneath these mental visuals lies a tale of grief, despair, marriage, and the subconscious fears and desires that come with parenthood, that honestly has a lot of great things to say.

From this description alone, it isn’t hard to see that Matt Bell has an incredible talent for evocative imagery and metaphorical storytelling. There are some fantastic (if deeply twisted) ideas in here, and if you allow yourself to be carried away by these mental pictures, this reads like a surrealist piece of art that is equally mesmerizing as terrifying. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible for me to do so, due to one large thorn in the paw of this bear: the writing style.

I consider myself to have quite a high tolerance and even appreciation for highly lyrical writing. This however, was at the best of times pretentious and at the worst unreadable for me. Some passages seemed to be written with the sole intend of showcasing literary prowess, to the point where the sentences seemed to be created by replacing every word with their longest and/or most obscure synonym the thesaurus has to offer.

Other sections of the book use a lot of repetition as a stylistic choice. There’s a section where the protagonist explores the aforementioned labyrinth of memory chambers under the house. Throughout this entire track, every sentence starts with “And in this room”, followed by a description of what he finds, before continuing. And when I say “every sentence”, I mean every sentence… for dozens of pages on end… All I can tell you is: after one page it became annoying, after tree it became unbearable and after what seemed like forever I actually skipped the entire section.

There’s such a thing as stylistic choices, and then there is taking wordiness so far that those words themselves lose all their meaning and your message gets lost along the way. I can’t help but mark this as a novel that fell prey to this in many regards.

I reserve my one-star reviews for books that are irredeemably bad or harmful, or that I actively hated whilst reading them. I’m sorry to say that this book fell firmly in that second category.

If you’re still interested in giving this novel a try, I recommend you set your expectations properly, and approach it more like a piece of poetry than a novel. Take in the imagery, more than the literal words, and most importantly: read it in little chunks at a time. there’s undoubtably an audience of magical realism veterans for this novel, but I unfortunately wasn’t among them.

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