The House on the Lake by Nuala Ellwood – Review
By Sandra Callard
Nuala Ellwood’s madly compulsive novel, The House on the Lake, is a winner from page one. A shattering story of three women, told primarily by Grace from her own writings and covering her disturbing feral childhood in an old house with just her father. Originally a good father, he now suffers badly from an untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and allows Grace no contact with the outside world. He is still fighting his war and calls Grace ‘Soldier’ and she calls him ‘Sergeant’.
Lisa, on the run with her three-year-old son, Joe, from a domineering and coercive husband, tells her story in the first person, and as her disintegration worsens she meets Isobel, a beautiful young girl who lives near the old house by the lake, befriends both women at different times in their lives, and is the catalyst for the tumultuous finale.
The actual house on the lake is an old and decaying wreck, and the home of Grace and her father, and eventually a refuge for Lisa as she hides from her husband and the police. Ellwood’s narrative is hauntingly compelling and the crumbling house rises unbidden before the reader as the story unfolds.
The three women initially do not know each other and while Isobel and Grace meet as children, Lisa meets them both only after she has left her husband and is hiding in the decrepit house by the lake, Rowan Isle House.
“Sympathy and affinity”
Each chapter and section of the book is allocated to the narrative of either Grace or Lisa, with the story of Isobel intermingled with each one, necessitating a careful reading for clarity. The possible confusion this could cause does not in fact materialise because Ellwood’s compelling and irresistible writing predominates, forcing the reader onwards to discover the truth behind the weird and grotesque events portrayed.
The title of the book becomes paramount and meaningful as the story rolls out. The house and what has happened there, both past and present, is massively important to the outcome of those involved, and almost takes precedence over the characters themselves. The house brings out the best and the worst in them and solidifies each of their decisions and their futures.
The characterisation in this novel is superb, possibly because each one of them is some distance away from being average or even normal. Nevertheless the writing engenders sympathy and affinity for them, even when their actions fall far below what is expected of them, because of the intense and harrowing things they experience.
The character of ‘Soldier’ or Grace is uppermost to the story, and everything that follows seems to flow from her. It is a monumental account of what a child can accept as normal, and eventually overcome when she realises it is not. She is a rock solid definition of a character who lives and breathes before the reader, and surely will become one of Ellwood’s finest creations.
There are some beautiful and poignant sections of the book, especially in those devoted to Grace. They are poetic and emotive and can bring a smile to the lips or a tear to the eye, even amidst some quite horrific events. It is clever and empathetic writing at its best and Nuala Ellwood has created a compulsively readable book. I look forward to reading more of her works.
‘The House on the Lake’ by Nuala Ellwood is published by Penguin, paperback £7.99