August 21, 2013
In this new book review segment Seven Stories Press intern Ellen Waddell reviews SoHo Press’s acclaimed novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.
I recently read Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods a debut novel that follows the lives of a pair of newlyweds as they struggle to establish themselves within the definition of “a family.” The husband, never addressed by name, is eager to have children and pressures his wife, likewise unnamed, through a chain of miscarriages that drives the couple further and further apart. Finally, out of desperation, the wife steals another woman’s child and pretends that it is her own to placate her husband, but this only marks the beginning of the deep unrest that characterizes their relationship throughout the rest of the novel. Sounds like a pretty normal depiction of unsatisfied married life, right?
Well, Bell’s writing has a whole lot more going on. For starters, the husband swallows one of his wife’s miscarried fetuses, and for the remainder of the novel this “fingerling” speaks to the husband and acts as a demonic, quite terrifying guide. The woman that the wife steals the child from is in fact a female bear, and on several occasions the husband assumes the form of a giant squid that terrorizes the lake. By singing, the wife creates an elaborate labyrinth beneath their home to escape her husband, and yet simultaneously draw him back to her. The mystical images in this novel are of epic, often disturbing, proportions.
This book is almost fantasy, but it’s cut by such gritty realism at times that I’m not quite sure how to classify it. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is larger than life, and yet it is peppered with small truths that its readers can identify with, that bring the story into an accessible realm. In moments of mythological grandeur and intensity, one brief line will break up the mysticism in a way that immediately brings the reader back to the reality of what is at stake – the love between one man and one woman. Whenever I began to feel a bit lost in the metaphor and symbolism, a truly familiar and relatable sentiment would reel me back in, something that felt like raw, honest, human thought in the midst of magical creatures. “How I wished I had not walked away at the beginning of our marriage,” the husband says after his wife disappears into her song-built subterranean home, “when I thought it would always be so easy to return.”
This is a book to get lost in, that will, as you read, build an entirely new world up around you so easily that you become submerged before realizing that you’ve left reality behind. It is all the more powerful, then, when one of Bell’s raw, accessible truths sneaks onto the page and catches you off guard. In one of my favorite, poignant moments, the husband describes an exchange with his estranged wife. “She said, ‘You changed without me, and I forgot how to recognize you through the changes.’ And what was there to do but agree?”
Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a short story collection. He teaches writing at Northern Michigan University, and this, his first novel, was published by SoHo Press.