I got about halfway through The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward and debated closing the book for good – I just wasn’t sure I could handle it anymore. The writing itself was not the problem, it was what the characters were doing to each other, or at least, what we are led to believe they are doing to each other. I pushed through because I suspected (based on the cover blurbs) that I was purposely being misled, and the twist of all twists eventually changed my mind, but I do feel as though this book should come with some sort of trigger warning because it delves quite deeply into child abuse and neglect. And yet, it was unputdownable despite this dark subject matter, so although it’s not the spooky haunted house I was expecting for my Halloween reading, I was terrified all the same.
Ted is a middle-aged, jobless man who lives by himself in the house he grew up in as a child. He has only his cat Olivia for company, and he rarely leaves the house. Ted and Olivia live mostly in the dark because he’s boarded up the windows with plywood. He drinks too much, and because Olivia is a god-fearing cat who loves Ted despite her disgust with his bad habits, she stays permanently indoors, only having a few glimpses of a neighborhood cat to look forward to each day. We occasionally get a few chapters told from the perspective of Dee, a woman whose younger sister Lulu disappeared when they were little, and Dee suspects Ted was the kidnapper so she moves in next to him in an attempt to revive the cold case. Time is not always linear in this story, so flashbacks of Dee and Ted’s childhood interrupt the suspenseful present-day plotline, while other times it’s unclear whether someone is recalling a memory or creating one. Ted is of course an unreliable narrator, as is the bible-reading Olivia, so it’s difficult to believe much of anything being described. As I delved deeper into the subconscious of these characters, I found myself horrified by what I found, which is what prompted me to consider abandoning it. I’m relieved I kept going because being pushed to the brink is clearly what the author intended with her plot development.
I know I’m not alone in judging a book by its cover, and based on this one, I thought a haunted house and black cat guaranteed a supernatural, Halloween-ish read. Clearly this was not the case while it slowly dawned on me that the evil in this book is purely human. Although this book is fiction, the terrible things it describes most certainly do go on in the world, are probably happening as I type this, and that level of awareness began to overwhelm me as I considered the extent of human suffering that others endure. Am I getting too big picture here? Does anyone else find themselves spiraling into these pits of despair when faced with a book that simply reminds us of how terrible some humans are? Once I acknowledged this discomfort and moved on, I found I could read my way through this book and enjoy the fact that it’s an incredibly brilliant story, twisted in such surprising ways that I was always eager to turn the page and find the answers that inevitably eluded me until the very end.
There are a few elements of the plot that build suspense; not knowing what happened ‘that day’ that Lulu disappeared, how much of Ted’s ramblings we can truly believe, Dee’s vigilante efforts, and the remarkably creepy yet vague memories of Ted’s life with his parents. The house itself, although not haunted like I first expected, also acts as another character, releasing shuddering movements at particular times that only the cat can recognize. There are so many questions raised throughout the novel that it borders on the confusing, yet thankfully not everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end either, and the tension between reality and make-believe lands firmly in the real side of things once the last page is turned. This plot is so intricate, I can’t help but be in awe of the planning it must have required, which is one of the reasons I’m so impressed by this book, even if it pushed me to my empathetic edge.
It’s definitely not for everyone because it may steer some readers into painful childhood memories that may be best left unexamined, but it’s an excellent example of the power of red herrings when directing attention to all the wrong places. Recommended for spooky season, but reader beware!
I read one other review of this book and put the audio version on hold. Now, you’ve given me a totally different perspective….it almost sounds like this novel is more one of those violent thrillers instead of a horror novel that’s designed to be scary, but also makes you laugh nervously because it’s fun to be scared. What do you think?
Well I found it difficult to read because ultimately it’s about child abuse and neglect, and I found that difficult to stomach. But, it’s also not what you think when you start reading it, it turns into something totally unexpected…I don’t want to give anything away! haha sorry I’m being so vague
That’s okay. From what I remember, the other review didn’t even mention child abuse that I remember, so that’s the main part that surprised me. My hold for this book just came in yesterday!
The cover definitely screams haunted house and supernatural happenings so I’d have been shocked to find out it was about human evil too. Think I’ll pass – I much prefer nasty ghosts to nasty people… 😉
I prefer nasty ghouls to nasty people any day! hah
Is the cat one of the narrators? I’m intrigued by your description of her as Bible-reading! I’m probably like you in that I would also start to think about how such things really do occur/are occurring in the world and that makes this type of book one I’m far less likely to want to read.
The cat is one of the narrators yes. The bible thing is a minor part of her character, but it’s all very odd haha
That does sound odd!
If “nerve-shredding” and “mind-blowing”–right THERE on the cover–aren’t warning enough, I can’t imagine what you believe would have more properly prepared you for this story?! 😀
Oh I’m so used to just ignoring blurbs most of the time, especially Stephen King, he blurbs everything these days! haha
Since this is one I will obviously not be reading, LOL, can you tell me… does that poor cat get a Happy Ending?
Yes actually, the cat does get a happy ending!