Sunday 3 November 2019

Review: Lilian's Spell Book by Toby Litt

Lilian's Spell Book starts out like many a traditional gothic haunted house horror novel. A family inherit a mansion in the countryside from a distant uncle. There are odd conditions in the will (they must practice Catholicism and not sell anything). Lawyers seem to discourage them from taking up their inheritance, and there is a woman cleaning the house and a gardener who seem... very peculiar. Not to mention oodles of foreshadowing and ominous "Little did I know that everything would get real scary after this" type chapter endings that would make early Stephen King proud.

But, at some point, the book turns. The painting that is filled with personality and presence does not seem malevolent. Our narrator (the mother) may experience fear and terror and unusual events occurring, and lots of stuff happens so only she can see / experience it, but for all the Gothic stuff, all the Hitchcockian elements, she starts to feel more and more at home in the house. Plus, she spends about half the book nursing her baby and herding her raucous little boy about the place, which is strangely grounding in a novel of the Gothic supernatural. At times the small community of people living in the nearby tiny village seem more worthy of distrust than her haunted home...

Lilian's Spell Book was a surprise. I was drawn in very quickly at the start, and for a while I was impressed that the haunted-house genre could still be eery. But the change in direction, the increasing reliance on wonder rather than fear as emotional engine of the plot is something I have never really seen done before in a story. Or perhaps not in a story for adults: Fear-then-wonder makes me think of Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, of children being orphaned or kidnapped before they have adventures, of Jules Verne novels. Adult stories tend to be fear-then-more-fear or wonder-then-fear like Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, even Lord of the Rings. Lilian's Spell Book has a strange rhythm for a literary novel for grownups - but I rather liked that.

Which isn't to say that the book is without tension: I was not sure whether to trust our narrator's instincts, and there are some pretty dangerous things going on. The children are occasionally imperilled and stuff happens to them (which a reader who likes babies or children might have a stronger response to than I did). Also, the book is slightly uncanny (but not entirely uncanny enough).
So, if you like gothic horror and wondrous, slightly uncanny adventure stories, and if you don't mind first person narration by a nursing, breastfeeding mother, then Lilian's Spell Book is well worth a look. Slightly unusual, surprisingly original, creepy and wondrous and fun: highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5