“The birds make no sound. Maybe that’s the worst part. Birds aren’t like people. Pain makes them quiet.”
Catriona Ward hit the ground running with her debut, Rawblood, a gothic chiller with a truly remarkable final third that looped through time, and seemed to inspire the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Her second, Little Eve, a beautifully constructed murder mystery, was equally as compelling. Now comes her third novel, The Last House on Needless Street, which is getting plaudits from authors across the board, from Joanne Harris to Stephen King. It’s being hyped as the first big book of 2021, and do you know what? It’s absolutely brilliant.
The Last House on Needless Street is occupied by Ted, one of our multiple narrators. He lives with his daughter Lauren, and his cat Olivia, both of whom serve as narrators too. Ted is a quiet man, who keeps to himself. He has trouble with his memory and tends to assign characteristics to people so as to remember who they are: a woman who lives down the road from him is known as the Chihuahua Lady. He’s been severely traumatised ever since he was suspected in the disappearance of a girl he refers to as Girl with Popsicle, and ever since the police turned his house upside down looking for evidence of her disappearance, he’s boarded his windows up and only leaves to go to therapy, and to dig in the woods. He sets up online dating profiles, but when it comes to meeting the women he connects with, he can’t quite go through with it, choosing instead to sit in the bar and watch their disappointment. His life, as well as the lives of his cat and daughter, are thrown into disarray with the arrival next door of Dee, the older sister of a girl who vanished years ago, convinced that Ted has something to do with the disappearance.
To say much more about the plot of The Last House on Needless Street would be to ruin the joy of the book. Ward has always been canny about the twists and turns in her narratives and this is no exception. There were several times in the novel where I was convinced I’d figured it out, only to have her wrong-foot me completely. It makes for a fun first read, but the key to the success of The Last House is that the mystery serves the characters so well.
So many problems with novels that promise a mystery-box narrative such as this is that once the reveals are revealed and we know the truth of what’s going on, the book loses the power it had over the reader. There’s a compulsion to turn the pages and find out what happens next, and that’s all well and good, but it can’t sustain a second read and it’s unlikely to linger on for too long after finishing the book. The Last House on Needless Street is not that book. Emotionally rich, and often quite funny, it is so focussed on its small cast of characters and that, ultimately, is why it works so well. There are mysteries abound here, but they are in service to the characters and not vice versa.
The characters here are sharply observed and occupy an unsettling grey area. Rather than being a stereotypical monster, Ted is enormously sympathetic, and the contrast between this and what we learn about him as the novel progresses makes for some uncomfortable reading. Likewise, Lauren Olivia and Dee all have their own secrets. Oliva, Ted’s pious cat, is a genuinely brilliant invention by Ward, responsible for some of the novel’s funniest insights, and some of its most emotionally devastating moments.
The Last House on Needless Street will likely draw comparison to a variety of fast-paced twisty thrillers, Gone Girl, Behind her Eyes, Before I Go to Sleep amongst others, but it feels far more haunted than those books, much more melancholy than the set-up would let you think. Ward’s novel is full of sadness, and she writes with care about some extremely difficult subjects.
Any Cop?: Believe the hype. This is another fantastic novel from a truly exciting author and a book I cannot wait to dissect with everyone who reads it.