Rawblood by Catriona Ward

I’m grateful to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the publisher, for sending me a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Rawblood is a complex, multi-layered ghost story, deeply atmospheric, of the kind that stays with the reader long after the last page has been read and the book snapped shut. Spanning almost a century in the history of Rawblood, a Dartmoor mansion, it tells the story of a family cursed by an oppressive, terrifying evil presence that stalks the house and picks off one by one members of the family who live there, prematurely and violently. The books begins in 1910 with 11-year-old Iris Villarca and her tortured, drug-addicted father Alonso, trying to pass of the Villarca curse as a congenital disease. Next, through the diary of a former friend of Alonso's, we learn of the grotesque medical experiments of his youth, his marriage to a much younger woman hopelessly damaged by her abusive foster parents; we also take a step further back to the 1830s when Mary Hopewood, dying of tuberculosis overseas, came to meet the mysterious Spanish nobleman who made Rawblood the Villarca family home.

Rawblood is a remarkable achievement in many ways. It’s swimming in gothic imagery with strong echoes of Poe and even a few dark shadows of Wuthering Heights. In its pages you’ll find guilt-ridden opium addicts, children isolated by grief-stricken, paranoid parents and destructive, obsessive relationships in which love and fear are almost one and the same. Throughout it all a nameless – and, I must say, genuinely terrifying – ghost of a woman inhabits the house and torments every Villarca who attempts to end the cycle of loneliness and grief through new relationships, yet in a cruel twist also causes them to sicken whenever they leave. For Her, the Villarcas must be at Rawblood, but they must be there alone.

Unsurprisingly, this makes for novel that is frequently oppressive and claustrophobic – occasionally to the point of overkill as the narrative drifts into long passages of dreamlike, confusing and almost hallucinogenic description. This does, of course, reflect the mental state of the characters and the nightmarish atmosphere of Rawblood and the surrounding landscape, but there are times when it’s simply too much, and more disciplined editing would have been welcome. This is in fact my only substantial criticism of the novel: there are several chapters in which the gothic intensity simply reaches saturation point. Personally, I think a tighter edit could have retained every bit of Rawblood’s haunting power, and maintained the author’s well-executed evocation of a 19th century prose style, while stopping short of the point where the languid richness of the description begins to cloy.

That’s not to say that it’s all opium-fuelled visions and supernatural dread, however. The story of Mary Hopewell and her painfully genteel, largely disappointing sojourn in Italy is almost at times a comedy of manners, and the stiff, pomposity of the doctor's journal before his visit to Rawblood descends into terror also brings a welcome change of pace. Sections set in a mental hospital in the aftermath of the First World War also help bring about a shift in atmosphere with a chillingly clinical kind of horror that's altogether different to the more to that which we get from the wild, untamed environment of Rawblood and the natural world around it.  

It might be easy to imagine that Rawblood would be an act of mimicry, simply aping gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th century, but don’t be fooled: it’s so much more than that. Rawblood is a million miles away from being a simple ghost story (not that a simple ghost story is a bad thing) and is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, drawing on obvious influences but retaining a strong sense of originality. It’s a story of mental illness, of folklore, of the everlasting damage that one terrible wrong can do to countless generations, and the impossibility of escaping not only one’s past, but one’s future. It’s also a powerful tale of landscape and psychogeography that occasionally brought to mind Alan Garner’s Thursbitch.

Definitely not a cosy, fireside sort of ghost story, Rawblood can be demanding of its readers, but for me, absolutely worth the effort, and a very impressive debut.