Fourth Estate | 18 March 2021 |323 pages | Kindle review copy via NetGalley/ 4*
She doesn’t exist. She can’t exist.
‘A uniquely gothic tale about grief, belonging and hiding in plain sight’ Jess Kidd, author of Things in Jars
Those who live in the walls must adjust, must twist themselves around in their home,
stretching themselves until they’re as thin as air. Not everyone can do what they can.
But soon enough, they can’t help themselves. Signs of their presence remain in a house.
Eventually, every hidden thing is found.’
Elise knows every inch of the house. She knows which boards will creak. She knows where the gaps are in the walls. She knows which parts can take her in, hide her away. It’s home, after all. The home her parents made for her. And home is where you stay, no matter what.
Eddie calls the same house his home. Eddie is almost a teenager now. He must no longer believe in the girl he sometimes sees from the corner of his eye. He needs her to disappear. But when his older brother senses her, too, they are faced with a question: how do they get rid of someone they aren’t sure even exists?
And, if they cast her out, what other threats might they invite in?
Set in south Louisiana, Girl in the Walls wasn’t quite what I expected from the book description, but I did enjoy its sense of strangeness and ‘the other’. It’s set in an old house that’s full of strange creaks and scary noises as though someone or some thing is creeping around. It’s a house like no other that I know or have read about. It’s a balloon frame house – that is a house with a timber frame within its outer walls, so there are spaces between the inner and outer walls, beneath the floor and in the attic. Spaces where a young person can crawl and exist. So, Elise is not a ghost but a real eleven year old girl, who lives in these spaces, only coming out when the Masons, the family who live in the house, are asleep or out of the house. And she manages to keep her presence in the house a secret, at least for a while.
Elise is an orphan and has returned to her family home, having escaped from the foster care system. At first, Eddie, the younger son, is the only one of the Masons who senses her presence, feeling that he is being watched and almost catching glimpses of Elise out of the corner of his eye. Eventually his older brother, Marshall too feels that there is some one else in the house, raiding the pantry, taking things and moving things and they decide they have to do something about it. First of all they can’t believe she is actually real and fear what they will find. Elise fears that they will find her.
Their fear is intense as the story takes a terrifying turn, and to make matters worse it is the hurricane season. From a slow start it builds up to a intense nightmare scenario. I think that to say much more would spoil the plot. The characterisation is good, the house is integral to the plot and the setting is brilliantly described. But you do have to suspend your disbelief to enjoy this book – I did!
This is a story about loss, and grief, about safety and security, intermingled with the strange beauty of the landscape and the fears and hopes we all experience. I loved the references to Norse mythology and legends that Elise reads about – Odin, the One-Eyed and how he became the wisest of the gods and about his sons, Thor and Loki.
A J Gnuse explains at the end of the book that he was inspired to write this story after talking to a friend about the strange noises his friend had heard in his apartment and remembered that he had spent much of his childhood in an old creaky house wondering whether someone was sneaking around at night, feeling scared and vulnerable. The house in the book is based on his parents’ house in South Louisiana, where he grew up, where the sea levels are rising as the coast is eroding and the coast is hit by hurricanes,
I wasn’t surprised that he lists Charles Dickens as one of the authors who have influenced his work – there is one particular character in his book who I haven’t mentioned, the monstrous villain who is larger than life and very scary, who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dickens’ novel. He also lists other authors including, Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte sisters whose descriptive writing captured the eerie beauty of an old house.
Girl in the Walls is described as a ‘gothic’ tale. Gnuse explains that he has been influenced by the literary tradition of the Southern Gothic novel – which is largely unknown to me – referring to writers like Flannery O’Connor – describing its ‘uniquely Gothic sense of the strangeness of decay, of the past latched onto people like vines grown around their legs.‘ I think I need to find out more about this genre of fiction.
My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for my advance review copy.