Review of Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods


I started this book while on my camping trip last week.  Having minimal distractions helped me make fast progress—finished it in five days—but I do think that it would have been helpful to have access to the internet in the sense that I would have said, “What the f**k is going on here?” a lot less if I’d been able to read a bit more about this book once I had started it.  This was the June 2013 Indiespensible pick (oh good, I’m only a year behind on reading my Indiespensible books now), and I remember when I got it I was equally intrigued and trepidatious.  When I grabbed it before heading out to go camping I didn’t reread the jacket blurb because I didn’t have time before leaving, and the jacket stayed at home for obvious reasons.  When I’m in the midst of a book and I’m having a bit of trouble deciding how I feel about it, I often read reviews on amazon and goodreads.  Having to be on my own with this book in the woods was somehow appropriate, though.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is a fairy tale, though in this fairy tale the fairies (were there any actual fairies) would have fangs and sneak up on you in the dark and poke you with their sharp little swords.  And then they would feed you to a giant squid living in the lake, or a disgusting bear living in the woods.  In this fairy tale, a husband and wife leave the hustle and bustle of civilization behind and build a house in a clearing by a lake, near a forest.  The characters are never named, and the perspective is first person husband.  The husband is desperate to have children, though the wife seems less enthusiastic.  They are unsuccessful at carrying a child to term, and the wife has many miscarriages of half grown babies who are buried in the lake, except for the first one, who the husband swallows, and who hangs out inside the husband for the bulk of the book, offering input and trying to take over his father’s body.  “Into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole—its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to slide farther in without the use of teeth—and I imagined that perhaps I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow (6).”  He’s known as the fingerling.  Yes, in case you were wondering, the first time I thought, “What the f**k” while I was reading was when the husband swallowed the fetus who becomes the fingerling.  Ultimately the wife has a baby.  Well, not really.  She steals a bear cub and transforms it into a human baby.  Oh, didn’t I mention that the wife can create things with her music?  Like furniture and extra rooms in the house and even babies.  And this was when I realized that the husband wasn’t delusional about the fingerling.  For a bit I was convinced that maybe the husband was just nuts and that this was a psychological piece, but when the wife started singing extra rooms onto the house and stealing babies I knew for sure this was a fairy tale.  The husband refuses to accept the child he refers to as the foundling, and resents the closeness he and his wife share.  The family fractures, the husband ultimately realizes his horrible mistakes, and they are sort of reunited for a time.  There is a quest to reunite his family, with the help of the bear who was once a woman, and the husband gains the ability to transform into a squid when in the water.  Or a whale.  Sometimes he might be a whale.

The language of this book is beautiful.  It is even beautiful when Bell is describing terrible, terrible things.  It’s almost beautiful nonsense, but there is actually too much of a plot here to lump it in with The Sea and The Sense of an Ending, though there is a bit of meditation on memory and a life gone by.  Well, not so much meditation on memory so much as there are many memories in the book.  The husband and wife are estranged for a time, and she builds more and more rooms in the house, and she puts memories in them that she finds important, for the husband to find and see when he is ready to see them.  The sections with the descriptions of the rooms are my favorites.  Just a few examples: “And in this room: the buzzing of bees and then, elsewhere, another room, full of bees.  Two separate rooms, one with the bees themselves, silent, and the other filled only with their sound.  How many more rooms I knew there must be if that continued.  How much more house it took to keep things separate, to break them down….  And in this room: my wife’s favorite dress, worn the first time she danced with me.  How when I held the fabric to my face I smelled nothing, because the smell of her sweat was in another room….  And in this room: the moment of our first lovemaking, which did not occur in the house but in that other country where we lived when we were first married, its cities once reachable by the road that led around the lake that, until we lost the head of its trail, could have taken us back home…. (98-109)”

After finishing the book last night I went and read the interview that Powell’s did with Matt Bell that came with the book.  He’s an odd one, but the interview actually helped me see the ultimate point of the novel, and it’s a good one.  The husband desperately wants to have children at the beginning of the novel.  And once they finally have one, albeit a bear cub sung into being a human, he is so jealous and resentful.  “Memory as new months spent alone: To again be without companionship….  To again live in a world of unfaithful wives, a world where mothers chose their children over their husbands. To complain aloud and to no one of this unfairness, to pretend that there was no deeper person in her than what I gave her back, and yet, and yet.  To admit that no matter how I wanted her to be my wife first, still she had not been just mine, not since the moment of our first conception, all those years ago.  To admit defeat, because she never would be mine alone, not ever again, and it was I who had failed to join her, to become some true father to complement her endless motherhood, instead remaining only her husband, that insufficient shape to which always I stubbornly cling (265).”  I found this passage fascinating for many reasons, mostly because I am a married woman in the midst of my childbearing years who is most likely never going to become a mother (don’t worry, this is a choice, not something that’s been forced upon us).  I wonder if all husbands feel this way when their wives become mothers?

I’m not sure if everyone will love this book.  It’s definitely got some creepy stuff in it, but the writing is so beautiful.  I know that if I’d known that it was a fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm rather than Disney variety I would have been less confused at the start, and my enjoyment would be enhanced.

This entry was posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Matt Bell, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review of Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

  1. bedstrom says:

    I think I would hate this book (but you knew that).

    • badkitty1016 says:

      I knew you’d hate it as soon as the wife sang a crib into existence. But you must agree that it’s pretty nonsense this guy writes.

    • badkitty1016 says:

      PS, she sings a crib into existence on page 2. It didn’t take long to figure out this was not a Bethany book.

      • bedstrom says:

        Haha. Yes, while perhaps I would not mind that superpower in real life, I have no use for it in a book. Would you call this book a form of magic realism, or is it something else entirely?

      • badkitty1016 says:

        Initially I thought it was magical realism but as things went on it definitely got more of a fairy tale/myth than vibe than typical magical realism stuff.

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