“A house, a labyrinth of rubbish, a crazy old man and a message in a bottle: all the ingredients of a twisted crime story.”
“The loveliest eyes are found in the heads of women who have suffered … Damage lies at their shining core. As I said, Drennan, you have beautiful eyes.”
“Memories are fickle creatures, you ought to know that, skittish and in no way trustworthy.”
This is my first book review of this year’s Begorrathon.
Jess Kidd’s The Hoarder is a comic gothic thriller, a convoluted mystery story with a heavy dose of the supernatural, featuring a narrator, Maud Drennan, a care worker assigned to clean Bridlemere, the huge but filthy home of pensioner Cathal Flood, an artist and widower, described memorably as ‘a long, thin, raw-boned, polluted old giant.’
Maud and Cathal are both Irish, although the novel is set in London.
After Maud finds an old photo of two children, Gabriel and his sister Maggie, and following a few weird occurrences at the house (it might be haunted), she begins investigating the disappearance of Cathal’s daughter, Margeurite (Cathal initially denies he ever had a daughter), and suspects that Cathal may have killed his wife Mary (who died years earlier).
Maud is often accompanied by various saints (St Valentine, St Dymphna, St George, St Rita and others) who form a sort of Greek chorus – they are there to help her but also to slag her off (Valentine in particular seems to relish her discomfort around a man, Sam Hebden, who she is strongly attracted to).
Your man’s very vigorous … is he a hopper and a leaper? Is he an honest cowboy? Would he be any use in the sack? Would you say he’s a definite ride?
Slow-motion molten glances. Cinematic moments and those less rehearsed. The awkwardness of clothes and the stilted tripping journey from sofa to bed. Then the freedom, the joyful rolling, plotting boundaries and finding landmarks, directions cut off mid-sentence. I see it again, or some version of it: involving limbs and hair, saliva and teeth, the electricity of fingertips and skin scorched into an awful fervent feeling. The urgent consensual stare and the act of near-violence that followed.
As the mystery of the house deepens (seemingly because of supernatural reasons – things appear to Maud: clues about the disappearance of not just Margeurite but another child, Maggie Dunne), Maud also recalls her own family tragedy: she had an older sister, Deirdre, who disappeared one summer during a holiday in Donegal.
The relationship between Maud and Cathal is initially antagonistic. He insults her: “He wishes me a barren womb (no changes there, then), eating without ever shitting, sodomy by all of hell’s demons (simultaneously and one after another), fierce constrictions of the throat, a relentless smouldering of the groin and an eternity in hell with my eyes on fire.” He threatens her when he suspects she has been nosing around the house; but eventually the two become close – not exactly friends, but more than acquaintances.
There’s also Renata, Maud’s transvestite landlady. Given to outlandish conspiracy theories and a collector of superstitions and the supernatural (‘Renata has memorised entire articles on true spectral crimes and the science behind them’), she’s an agoraphobic, a former bricklayer who liked to dress in women’s clothing, who met and fell in love with a magician called Bernie Sparks and who was his stage assistant. He died during a trick. (his ashes are in an urn in the flat).
Theatrical, garishly dressed (‘she is especially glamorous today, clad in an appliquéd romper suit and feathered mules … she looks out of place against the homely backdrop of her kitchen; she really ought to be propping up a slot machine in Las Vegas with a pocketful of dimes’), she speaks in a plummy BBC voice belying her humble origins in the London suburb of Rotherhithe.
Maud’s collection of saints accompany her at various times but none of them will cross the threshold at Bridlemere. Maud sees saints because she as a child she was obsessed with them, having devoured her granny’s Illustrated Compendium of Saints:
The saints were brilliant. There they all were having revelations or building churches or being fed to lions. I loved their veils and coronets, coifs and birettas, their holy expressions and long pale hands. If I closed my eyes I could hear their voices – soft supplications and whispered prayers – in the wind coming off the bay and the waves washing the shore. Sometimes I could even smell the saints. A subtle smell that came and went. Starched wimples and elderly velvet, spicy incense and the odour of sanctity – like the sweet sad scent of overblown roses
The main Saints are:
St Dymphna (family harmony, madness and runaways). “all talk. All dark flashing eyes and righteous swords and sulking and bluster and challenge. But underneath this she is terrified by anything out of the ordinary, or overly mundane, or pitiful, or unpleasant. Death scares her …”
St Rita of Cascia (marital strife, spousal abuse, lost and impossible causes): “She is of grave appearance: dressed in monochrome robes. Far fainter than St Dymphna, less fully realised, with the slippery transparency of onion skin. St Rita never talks, though she often exudes sympathy”
St Valentine (love, the plague) “an old, sly class of saint with a roving wall eye … his halo, the size and shape of a tea tray, is worn to the back of head like a casual sombrero”
St George (of Dragon fame). Kitted out like a knight.
There are others but those are the four who feature most. Having the magic realist/fantastical element of saints in the novel allows Kidd to ratchet up suspense, as there are moments when she is in danger and the saints look out for her.
There is also a fox, Larkin, who hangs around the house, sometimes coming in, and who leads Maud to clues.
Then there is Bridlemere itself. Kidd has written a novel with echoes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and Rebecca, and any number of other gothic suspense mysteries, and the decrepit old mansion is as much a character as anyone else. There is a well (there is a body in the well, actually, but we will get to that). There is an old ice house, where Maud has an accident and is badly injured. There are two rooms, one white, one red, that are mirrors of each other, which are off limits to Maud, and each of which reveals clues to Maud about what might have happened to Maggie Dunne or Marguerite or Mary.
Before all of that, however, there is
But things were never the same with her. She had changed. She began to talk to herself … she said she was talking to the dead … but the biggest change was in her eyes … hey were lit with a ind of sorrowful gleam, a kind of tragic lustre, like pearls, you know … A pearl is an everlasting tear. A swaddled hurt.
Early in the novel, in the first instance of something supernatural going on in the house (think Poltergeist), Maud finds a photo in a milk bottle that bubbles up in an overflowing hand basin. The photo is of two children, a boy of four, a girl of seven. The girl’s face has been burned out. On the reverse it reads: XXXXXXXX and Gabriel, Bridlemere, 1977.
The photo reminds Maud of another: one of her and her older sister Deirdre, taken at Pearl Strand in 1989. Like Maggie Dunne, Deirdre was also 15 when she disappeared.
St Dymphna tells Maud her memory of what happened to Deirdre is wrong. There was no disappearance. There were no guards. Deirdre was pregnant and simply left to take the ferry to Wales. “Memories are fickle creatures, you ought to know that, skittish and in no way trustworthy.” Later Maud will reflect that “memory is like a wayward dog. Sometimes it drops the ball and sometimes it brings it, and sometimes it doesn’t bring a ball at all; it brings a shoe.”
Kidd’s novel has a comic, lighthearted, quite dry tone in spite of the occasional solemn moment. This is a comedy with a serious and heartbreaking undertone.
I cry for the people who are dying of bowel obstructions and car crashes, heart attacks and lingering diseases, unhappiness and fluke DIY accidents. I cry for old rogues holed up in their clutter and brave souls too scared to go out. I cry for dead wives and bad sisters and disappeared schoolgirls. I cry for those who can’t remember and those who can’t forget and those who are stuck somewhere in the fucking middle.
Verdict: Four Saints out of Five