I tried to write this review last week. It took me a long time to gather my thoughts, and I had made very good progress in writing. But then the blogging service I pay for glitched, and I lost everything I'd written--a lot of really thoughtful commentary on a book that was really difficult for me to digest. Apparently, there's no auto-save feature, like on other, free platforms. It was discouraging, and there's been a lot in my life that has been discouraging lately, so I shut my computer down and haven't touched it since, well, today. I've used my cell phone for internet access, but it was such a kick in the teeth to lose all my work, I just...:sigh:
So here's attempt number two, and I have no idea how good this will be. I'm still embittered and not at all comfortable with my blogging platform--it all feels pointless when it can disappear in an instant. Anyway, I am giving myself full permission to revisit this review and edit it at a later date, should I manage more insightful reflection. For now, this.
This book, as I mentioned, was really difficult for me to wrap my head around.
I was first introduced to it when Matt Bell came to my university for a reading, way back in 2013. My fiction workshop professor mentioned it, talked up Bell's skill and craft quite a bit. Back then, I had a lot of time on my hands, and a lot of enthusiasm for writing, so I grabbed a friend with an open schedule and went to the reading.
At that reading, Bell described his novel as "a modern day fairy-tale"--and it's probably the most accurate description of this book. But it's not modern day interpretation of an established fairy-tale. This is a new, original fairy-tale, where the physical penning of the tale is done in the modern day. So, basically, Bell wrote his own fairy-tale. And it is one hell of a story.
It's hard to sum up its themes. Hard because, to tell you the story is about the struggles of marriage, of the role of children in a marriage, of whether a couple can recover the ground lost in emotional distance, is really really near-missing the point. Yes, these themes exist. Yes, you can say this is what the book is about. But it's too close to how people described The Art of Racing in the Rain to me. "Oh, it's a book about racing, but it's really well written and has fantastic craft elements, etc. etc." What was the super interesting thing about The Art of Racing in the Rain? The narrator was a dog.
So what's the super interesting thing about In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods? Well, the wife can sing things into existence, for one. Like with any fairy-tale, the whys and hows are not offered or needed. The wife can just do this. Bam. Done. There's also a bear and a squid, because, for the author, these seemed natural opposites (I think this just illustrates his immense creativity, even beyond writing his own fairy-tale). The house the newlyweds live in is built by the husband, and he builds it on the dirt located between the lake and the woods. He and his wife also know that "this land" is different than their "homeland," but you're not told much about their homeland beyond some customs they carry into their new life together.
And, well, that isn't really enough either, to say all that.
Why did I even buy this book? If it was so difficult for me to wrap my head around, and it took me so long to finish it, why the hell did I even bother? Why am I writing a review about it?
Well, at that reading, Bell read from his book (obviously), and he is one hell of a storyteller. His oration had me so engaged, so involved, I just...I was so upset I didn't have cash on me to buy his book right then, at the reading. I was invested. He read from somewhere about 30 pages or so into the novel, and I didn't care how it started--I didn't need the build up or context--I just needed to know more. So, he jumps ahead a few chapters, somewhere towards the last third of the book, and continues reading there; and I'm pained because WHAT HAPPENED IN BETWEEN? HOW DID WE GET HERE? WHY THE SQUID? WHY THE BEAR?
Reading the book didn't ease my agony, because it's a FAIRY-TALE. By its very nature, it doesn't make sense. Why is the wolf capable of talking to Little Red Riding Hood? Why is Cinderella able to sing birds to aid her? Why did Alice chase a white rabbit, and why was the caterpillar smoking hookah? And, like, the only answer I can come up with to any of this (without High School teacher-ing the hell out of it) is...why not?
Why not a bear? Why not a squid? Why not a talking wolf or an obsessively punctual white rabbit or birds sung into formation or any number of other fantastical things? Why not?
(Don't worry--you get some story-based explanation for the squid and the bear. It's just not one you'd ever in a million years expect.)
This novel is bold, and it is so fucking innovative. After being spoiled by Bell's own reading, all I could hear was his voice through the words on the page. Rolling, mellow, appropriately enthusiastic. This book is so easy to get lost in, but because I'd spent my entire life reading stories that *had* explanations, I kept trying to deduce causes before the narrative gave them to me. I kept trying to identify relationships between details and glean hidden meanings around every corner; and Bell's work bucked against me at every turn. It's an exercises in suspension of disbelief, and such a wild wild ride.
Try to imagine what it must have been like to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when it was first published. Or The Wizard of Oz. Here's this magical, fantastical, mythical story--enjoy! If you want to experience that--that wonder and adventure, fresh and pure, without exposure to any of its elements through pop culture or academic analysis--read this book.
You can get it here:
Bell has written two other books since publishing In the House Upon the Dirty Between the Lake and the Woods (I'm very late to the game in this review). You can find out more about him and his endeavors here: