In The House In The Dark Woods

In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing. Or not missing – perhaps she has fled, abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.
On a journey that will take her through a wolf-haunted wood, down a deep well, and onto a living ship made of human bones, our heroine is forced to confront her past and may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along.
Eerie and disturbing,
In The House In The Dark Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s acclaimed lyrical prose. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of oppression, of revenge and redemption.
It is a story of a haunting, one that forms the bedrock of American mythology, told in a vivid voice you will never forget.

In The House In The Dark Woods

I love following the Belletrist book club – even if I am several months behind at any given time – because almost always it introduces me to a title that never would have been on my radar otherwise. In The House In The Dark Woods, their pick from back in October, is a dark horror-fairy tale, a sinister and magical story about patriarchy, violence and coercion.

“For my own part I kept very quiet, as quiet as I have ever been, for there are things in this world that you think will never come to pass that will rob you of your voice for nothing but the joy of them when suddenly they do.”

Laird Hunt has a lyrical and strange writing style that is beautiful, but, for me anyway, took a little time to get used to. He is prone to very long sentences that follow the narrator’s rambling thoughts. They’re often lovely, but easy to get lost in. Kind of like the woods Goody, the narrator – not her real name, which we never learn – wanders, I guess.

The dark woods are filled with supernatural and formidable women. Captain Jane, self-styled queen of the woods, second only to Granny Someone, an evil force who only consumes; Eliza, a fairy-like presence with a welcoming cottage for weary wood-wanderers – well, friendly at first; and Hope, the mysterious child who always seems to show up at the exact moment you need her the most.

Everything about the narrative is unreliable – from Goody’s Man, who she initially represents as a caring presence she is desperate to find her way home to before soon revealing him as violent and abusive, to the very fabric of the woods, which seen through a magical stone turn horrifying, with even the animals transformed to monsters through its lens.

Most of all In The House In The Dark Woods is a deeply unsettling horror story. It’s hard to go into any analytical detail without spoilers – the curse of reviewing a story with an unreliable narrator – but with carefully constructed half-truths, corner-of-the-eye jumps and the sudden and jarring injection of the grotesque, Hunt winds a tight knot of anxiety in your stomach, even as you wonder what on earth is going on.

If you enjoyed the tragic twist at the end of We Were Liars or the underlying act of horror at the centre of The Walls Around Us then the complex and misleading women that populate In The House In The Dark Woods will likely catch your imagination too.

Welcome to Lagos

TW: sexual assault

Five runaways ride the bus from Bayelsa to a better life in a megacity. They are unlikely allies – a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. They share a need for escape and a dream for the future. Soon, they will also share a burden none could have expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos.

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Once again I have the fantastic Belletrist book club to thank for Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. This was an absolutely delightful take on moving to the city/coming of age story set in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Two military deserters, one former militant with aspirations to be a radio star (and a fake American accent), a student and a homemaker on the run from her violent husband come together as an dysfunctional family during their escape from the violence ridden Niger Delta. War wounds (from spouses, militants and corrupt military generals) weighing heavy on them all, they follow their (somewhat) reluctant leader Chike into their new fast paced, mystifying, occasionally beautiful (but mostly nonsensical) Lagos life.

In addition to our core runaway family, the novel also tells the story of Ahmed, upper middle class UK educated editor of the anti-government (and anti-money. It is totally failing and only allowed to continue because Ahmed’s father used to be pretty high up in the (corrupt) government he is so against) newspaper the Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayọ, the (not so) Honourable Minster of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently vanished with most of the Ministry’s money.

Realities come crashing together when Chike and co. move into an apparently deserted basement apartment that just so happens to be the secret hideaway of that (not so) Honourable Minister. And the stolen money.

Welcome to Lagos an excellent portrait of survival in a city that wants to eat you alive. In equal parts funny and tragic, we see Onuzo’s complexly realised characters fight to be better in an environment that really only calls for them to be worse. Chike, who, after deserting the army that was his purpose for so long (until his superiors starting ordering kills of anyone who dared disagree with them) is searching for a new cause, anything he can cling to to make it all worth it; Isoken, the student searches for some means of survival after a violent sexual assault; Fineboy the wannabe DJ and the only male member of his family not to have committed suicide fights to see a different end to his story; and Ahmed, so determined to see an end to corruption in his country yet a beneficiary of his father’s corrupt money when he needs it. It’s a novel heavy on irony, with every character swimming the wrong way in a strong current but refusing to be swept away – it’s about the belief that the world can be better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Then Funkẹ had had her religious experience and all that suffering had been put in an unsettling perspective. The sooner the world unravelled, the sooner the second coming of her saviour. Earthquakes, famine, war: all signs and precursors to glorious rapture. It was a rationale to explain a world that never got better. Despite one’s best efforts, despite one’s highest hopes: the world did not change.”

Despite it all it’s not a pessimistic book. It’s a book about trying, even when trying is stupid, even when trying seems to make the situation worse. It’s a book about redemption, and it how it can be found in unexpected places. Most of all it’s a book about not allowing yourself to be lost in the rush of a system or a city much bigger than you, a ‘how to’ guide for keeping your head above water.

“Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, these moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.”

THINGS TO NOTE

If you don’t know anything of Nigeria’s political history (I did not) it is easy to feel disorientated in this story. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Google so things like this are pretty easy to rectify. You are not going to understand the entire complicated political history of Nigeria since its independence in an afternoon, but you can certainly learn a few things. Here are a few sources I found helpful:

A timeline of key events in Nigeria (starts in 800BC, which is a little early for our purposes but it interesting nonetheless)

This 2011 piece by Remi Adekoya is a good whistle-stop tour of the origins of Nigeria’s problems, particularly with regards to the effects of colonialism and the country’s crude oil, which is mentioned in Welcome to Lagos a few times

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing book you should read anyway, but also paints a picture of Nigeria in its infancy as an independent country. Obviously I’m not saying read this one first, but having read it it gave me a bit more context for the history of Nigeria that was helpful while reading

As with any analysis of a country, all should be read with a critical mindset and an awareness of the authors’ biases, but the above helped give a bit of context when, during my reading, I would find myself feeling like I was misunderstanding vital bits of plot because of a lack of basic knowledge about the country I was reading about. Yay Google!