Narrated by Caroline Lennon — Northern Ireland writer Stuart Neville’s domestic noir thriller creeps into your consciousness bit by bit until it becomes an irresistible story of women dominated and abused by the men in their lives. Sara Keane and her rather new husband Damien have moved from England back to his home in Northern Ireland. Not only has this displacement brought them near Damien’s family, he has a new job in his father’s construction business, and that firm is completing work on a rehabbed and expanded country house for the couple. It’s a a bit isolated, but near a small village, and it’s called The Ashes after the ash trees that distinguish the property. A feeling of gloom pervades the story, which at first it seems to be just another in a long list of books about women badly treated by men.
There’s some irony in the book’s title, as a prologue involves a dangerous fire that forces an elderly woman named Mary to flee the house in the middle of the night. As Sara begins to learn the whys and wherefores of the house’s difficult history, she has questions about that fire. Worse is what went on some 60 years previous, when the house was owned by a man named Ivan Jackson. He lived there with his two sons, Tam and George, two adult women named Noreen and Joy, and the young Mary, about age ten.
It isn’t until a dazed Mary walks into a grocery shop on the edge of the village that the shocked locals discover the women even existed. And that all five adults are dead, in what the authorities conclude was a killing spree by George, who then took his own life. It’s interesting that Neville gives away the punch line so early, leaving the narrative to describe how the people got to that point. And you can’t stop wondering whether Sara’s current day experience will parallel the house’s dark history.
She can’t stop probing this old story. To her, the house is creepy. Even before she learns what happened there, she feels as if she’s walking on other peoples’ graves. Damien does all he can to extinguish her curiosity, suggesting it’s an obsession linked to Sara’s fragile emotional state. Back in England, she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills, the result of finally seeing clearly how Damien had isolated her from her own friends and family. Now, he’s put the Irish Sea between them.
Even though this set-up is generally familiar, the chapters narrated by Mary describe her life with Mummy Noreen and Mummy Joy – an ironic name for sure – become riveting. The three men work them like slaves and keep them from any contact with the outside world. The feeling of isolation is profound. Mary has never been to school or church or a shop. In the daytime, the women cook and clean, and do some farm chores. At night, they’re locked in the basement, in the dark. If they cause even the slightest commotion, they risk Daddy Ivan taking off his belt and beating them. Their world is described in chilling detail, including the hair-trigger reaction of the Daddys to any deviation from expectations.
Damien has a more 21st century approach. He handles the money; he has the car; all Sara has is a house she doesn’t want to be in. He tries to cajole her into thinking his actions are in her own interest, out of his affection for her.
Sara, meanwhile, is desperate for a normal relationship with someone, and finds one in the ‘Spark’, an electrician called Tony who is finishing some work in the house. Tony fills her in on the terrifying past there, and takes her to visit Mary, now living in a care home. Of course, this budding friendship comes to Damien’s attention, and he tries to put a stop to it.
Sara comes to understand that Damien’s father saw the chance to get the fire-damaged property cheap by having Mary declared unable to live on her own. Mary, however, believes the house is still hers, bad memories and all. Sara agrees.
In Mary’s childhood world, disruption comes in the form of another woman, Esther, whom the Daddys want to integrate into their ‘family’. Esther, in her late teens, is having none of it. But the Mummys urge her not to attempt escape, because the men will catch her and kill her. In fact, they may very well kill all of them. They believe this down to their bones. You believe it too, knowing what eventually happened.
It’s a gripping story of manipulation and fear, nicely paced, so that you’re invested in both the historical and the contemporary stories. Daddy Ivan’s methods may have been cruder than Damien’s, but the impulse was the same and the results threaten to be the same too. Noreen, Joy and Mary couldn’t stand up to the overwhelming physical force of the men. But 60 years later, can Sara? Although the course of her relationship with Damian is predictable to modern readers, there’s considerable tension in wondering whether she will have the courage to do what she needs to do.
Irish actor Caroline Lennon has narrated more than 300 audio books and does an excellent job with Sara’s chapters in an English accent, as well as those from the Irish point of view, as the women prisoners become increasingly desperate. Her Mary is convincingly simple – when she’s both a child who doesn’t understand and an adult who does.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars