THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREES by Catriona Ward (BOOK REVIEW)
“In the forest, even familiar things
were strange. The constant wet patter of the night became the chilly drip of a dungeon. The creak of tree branches was the shifting of giant, scaly limbs. The snagging pull of a twig was bony fingers grasping at my sleeve – the fingers, maybe, of something that had once been a child, who wandered into the green light and never returned. I began to be scared. I squeezed Mommy’s hand. She squeezed back.”
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward is a dark, twisty psychological thriller with strong elements of horror, and even hints of fantasy. These are the genres I attributed to the book when I began reading, yet what sets this book apart, what made me fully appreciate how deep this novel is, was that by the end Ward shows us this story is far more than it appears.
There is a boarded up, derelict and sinister looking house on Needless Street. Living in this house is a man called Ted Bannerman, a young child called Lauren, and Olivia the cat. Ted keeps mostly to himself, quiet, pleasant to others but often distant. Lauren and Olivia are never allowed outdoors, they remain confined within the house at all times.
Then there is Dee, a young woman who has been searching for her missing sister Lulu for eleven years. On a seemingly ordinary family trip to the beach Lulu wanders off never to be seen again. Her body was never found, and any suspects for her possible abduction have never been found guilty. Yet Dee will not give up, that fateful day at the beach haunts her, it ripped her family to shreds, and she will not rest until the truth is uncovered.
At this point in the novel you think you know where this story is heading. You’ve connected the dots. These are clichés and tropes you’ve seen a thousand times before, right? Yeah, I thought so too.
It is hard to discuss the finer details of this novel, the intricate ways Ward builds up this story, because anything I mention could be potential spoilers, but I’d like to discuss the characters briefly. Needless Street revolves around three central protagonists each with their own first person POV. We begin with the focus falling onto Ted, as we learn about both his past and his present. From the onset we see that Ted is not quite “right”, his thoughts and speech patterns have an almost disjointed childlike quality to them, he has moments where he blacks out and loses time, he has trouble remembering people’s names, he tends to live in his own little bubble. He also seems to have an unhealthy fixation on his dead mother. Ted’s chapters have an unsettling atmosphere, his mannerisms suggest this is a character who could snap at any given moment. Then as we see the relationship he has with his daughter Lauren, things become even more disturbing.
Lauren is a young child, she’s petulant, quick to temper, often violent, and is also incredibly lonely. Whenever Lauren misbehaves or tries to escape, Ted sends her away. Sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. Where to? What does she do whilst she’s away? These are the questions we begin to pose, along with many more later on. Ward effectively puts her readers on edge throughout, it is in the aspects left unsaid, the things left to our own imaginations to contemplate, which gives us this sense of horror.
“How many times can someone bend before they break forever?
You have to take care, dealing with broken things; sometimes they give way, and break others in their turn.”
We then come to perhaps one of the strangest POVs I’ve come across in a horror novel before – Olivia, Ted’s religious cat. I have heard it is these chapters which put many readers off, yet for me Olivia’s perspective held so much fascination and wonder, I was compelled to discover more. Olivia can only see the outside world through a peephole where she’ll wait to see her beloved outdoor cat, who she happens to be in love with. She randomly knocks the Bible over so that it falls open and she can read different passages which she believes the LORD chooses for her as guidance. She won’t swear but she retaliates at Ted by knocking over his possessions, or peeing in his shoes. Olivia feels like a real cat and a fantastical creature all at the same time. Yet it is through her that we see a much more gentle and softer side to Ted. When he shows affection, concern and finds comfort in Olivia we see a deep love for animals which eventually we come to realise stems back from his childhood. A childhood which was far from happy.
Dee is a character whom it is the easiest to sympathise with. The disappearance of Lulu has broken her in many ways, her past has left her an empty shell with only one goal in mind. As the novel progresses her chapters become more and more frantic, almost surreal and dreamlike. It becomes hard to see the lines of reality vs the haunting images within her nightmares. However, Dee and Ted are connected throughout, and both characters offer different viewpoints of each other. As Dee’s fixation falls on Ted we see his actions and the way he lives through her eyes.
“All these vulnerable things, which can be broken or punctured: the blood can spill; bone can become a cracked white edge; eyeballs can be burst by the pressure of two thumbs. She looks for a mirror, to reassure herself that she is whole, unharmed. But there isn’t one above the basin or anywhere else in the dim, dirty bathroom.”
Needless Street is one of those novels you can only truly appreciate how cleverly and beautifully crafted it is when you finish the last page. There is much symbolism in the setting, from the forest, to the beach and the house. The ornaments on the mantelpiece, the objects scattered around the house, and the themes of Christianity running throughout all have a significance, which I was left thinking about for days. For the majority of the book everything feels disjointed, we ask more questions than are answered and whilst that wasn’t an issue for me, I can see others being put off. I would say stick with it though, honestly the ending is worth it.
At its core Needless Street is an admirable story of survival through immense horrors. So many lives have crosses to bear, ones which are invisible to us. Ward treats her subject matter with the care and sensitivity in which it deserves, she makes you see things through a whole different perspective and she injects much emotion with it.
“I think we’re lucky to have been born. And we’re luckier still to be alive. But I don’t know what being born or being alive means any more. What am I? It seems like everything I knew is wrong.”