The House with Old furniture is a recent release by Helen Lewis from Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. I only review books I like a lot. I like this book a lot & make no apology for promoting a debut novel from my own publisher.
This is an accomplished debut – the writing flows and the narrative never lets up. It’s a pretty book too – each chapter heading is decorated with facsimiles of old recipe books and an old-fashioned font. Sadly, that’s as far as the pretty goes.
Do we go mad or are we driven mad? In The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis the question is moot.
Evie and Finn are instantly placed: each one grieving for the loss of Jesse – a son and brother respectively. Killed in a shocking gang-related incident, Jesse’s ghost follows his distraught mother and lost little brother as they are forced into moving from London to Wales by his father, Andrew, easily the most arrogant and obnoxious character I’ve encountered in a very long time.
Evie is utterly broken by her son’s death, grieving almost to the point of inarticulacy, but even when she does speak, no one listens. No one listens to Finn either. As they attempt to settle into Pengarrow, an ancient house in Wales, it slowly dawns on Evie that Alys, the woman cooking in the kitchen, isn’t quite who she first appears to be. Evie finds common cause with ephemeral Alys, the author of an old book filled with recipes, reminders and remedies; notes, letters and clues. A book containing her life. Alys also has a son, fearful Nye who reminds both Evie and Finn of Jesse. The unfolding horror of the parallel ghost story slinks like a snake between the cracks of Evie’s grief-stricken mind and Finn’s growing confusion.
Vile, weak Andrew and his monstrous parents make Evie’s life hell on earth. Isolated in more than her desperate sorrow she is ‘unincluded’ rendering her inadequate and a target for people who ought to be caring for her but who have shocking agendas of their own.
If Andrew is the nastiest character I’ve ever encountered, Evie has to be the most tragic: poor, sad Evie, left with ‘all the things I should’ve thrown out and nothing we really need.’ Ten year-old Finn will break your heart; Evie will take the pieces and crush them. The ending is a stunner. It’s brutal and even though it left a space I didn’t know how to fill, and at first I thought I didn’t like that, after a few days I realised what makes this book special is the author’s absolute and unequivocal honesty. Which meant I could decide that after all, I loved it.
As Evie says, close to the end, when she and Alys raise a glass, “Now you’re talking; dirty, lying, scheming, cheating bastards…”