Ghosts! Ghosts! Ghosts!
I love the supernatural, the haunted, the creepy. My favourite films to watch on a rainy day are horror films about the things that go bump in the night. I love playing with the Ouija board, and even though I’m a complete skeptic I won’t allow it in my own house. Despite loving being creeped out, I like to do it from my couch and would probably be the very last person to go into an actual haunted house. So when I got the chance to read The Girl from Rawblood by Catriona Ward, I did a little happy dance in my chair because I was so ready to be scared by a good ol’ gothic novel.
The novel follows the narrative of multiple characters, beginning with Iris Villarca, the daughter of the great, ancient house of Rawblood which stands in the wind-swept moors of Dartmoor. We are then thrown back in time and meet Charles, a doctor, who lived at Rawblood for some time with Alonso, Iris’s father. The narrative shifts back and forth between the two, until we move further and further back, meeting Mary, Iris’s grandmother, and Meg, Iris’s mother, and some other characters that are either connected to Rawblood or to Iris herself. All of their stories are full of dark, sad things. Bad blood, bad moods, love, hurt, death, and mainly a curse, a ghost, which haunts the Villarca family. It is the strongest at Rawblood, and even though it is destructive, it draws the family back to the house even if they try to get away.
Despite the multiple narratives, The Girl from Rawblood is mainly about Iris. It is about how she came to be, how the love and the hurt of the family before her shaped what she was. We get to know her from the age of eleven up until her late teens, experience her pain and her losses. There are many layers to this story, which make it brilliant, but it requires persistence, patience and thought. It is a difficult, long journey that is completely worth it at the end.
The last chapters are crucial to the whole plot, and once the explanation comes, its so quick, so convoluted, that it is easy to miss. This is the brilliance and the fault of The Girl from Rawblood. It is only after I finished and had time to think about it could I really appreciate the scope of it all. It is only after I drudged through parts of the difficult, fragmented narrative, the multiple characters, the many timelines, did I understand what it was all about. In this, Ward had taken a huge risk.
Reading Rawblood was like reading two books. One is written in Iris’s perspective, in awkward present tense, in a strange, disjointed, jumpy way that is hard to follow. It lacked rhythm and flow, feeling more like automatic writing than thoughtful storytelling.
My arms swing long and free. Summer light. Sleepy birdsong clear as glass. The sandy shale good under my boots. Distant voices from the neighbouring fields. Harvest is nearly over.
It opened the book, and I was so close to putting the novel down because it was so infuriating and frustrating to read. It seemed that Ward lacked any sort of writing ability. Which is not true at all, because when it moved into the narrative of Charles, the writing became beautiful, well researched, and felt genuinely Victorian. Other characters had a similar voice and they were lovely, haunting, sad and sharp. Ward moved back and forth between these two styles throughout the novel.
There is a reason for this madness, so to speak. Ward has written a very conceptual novel, taking a lot of risk in experimentation, creating a very dark and haunting narrative. I am so torn between loving and hating this novel. Yet, both of those feelings seem appropriate responses, so I can only conclude that Ward has been successful in her intentions.
The Girl from Rawblood is an interesting take on the gothic novel, both modern and historical, which is very pleasant to see. It is perplexing, haunting, and demands another read in order to fully understand and appreciate the story, the concept and the characters. It is truly a book about the supernatural, not truth disguised as the mysterious. Taking the idea of ghosts, ancestry and what haunts us, The Girl from Rawblood deserves to become the next horror staple.
The Girl from Rawblood was originally published in 2016 in the UK as Rawblood. I received an ARC of the North American publication thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley.