In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho; 320 pages; $25.95).
Reading Matt Bell’s first novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, I often looked up from the book and blinked furiously in confusion. I expected to see a house with myriad rooms, a strange sky above me, a lake in the distance, and a wooded green. Instead, my own familiar environs surrounded me. That is just how powerful the setting is in Bell’s dreamlike, fabled, and beautiful debut. The story of a marriage and its collapse become much more as Bell infuses myth, allegory, and symbolism into his story, transforming the work into something else entirely.
A couple marries and, longing to get away from the rest of the world, moves to a bizarre land. The husband builds them a house, which the wife improves upon not by her hands but with her voice. If the husband starts building a room, for example, the wife can simply sing the rest of the space into being. For a time, despite the presence of a bear, a presence that looms over the entire novel, they are harmonious. Yet, their family is incomplete.
He longs for a child; she tries to give him one, but fulfilling that longing is not easy as her every pregnancy fails. The wife senses that she and her husband are slowly drifting further and further away from one another. Determined to save her marriage, the wife sings a son into existence. When the husband discovers the horrible truth of the child’s origins, he goes in search of his wife and their “foundling.”
As the husband walks through the house his wife built, now abandoned by them, Bell shows us the remnants of a failed marriage. “And in this room,” Bell writes, “The sound of my wife’s knuckle first sliding beneath the beaten silver of that ring, a sound never before heard, or else forgotten amidst all the other business of our wedding day.” Behind each door the husband opens is a different and striking scene. Each room holds a memory, a recollection the husband has long forgotten, but which the wife tucks away.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods may seem otherworldly, but the story is actually very familiar and recognizable. “As her side of our bedchamber grew some few inches, I did what little I could to right our arrangement, tugged hard at the blankets that barely covered the widened bed—until once again all things were distributed evenly, even as they were somehow also further apart.”
The debut is a simple story of love, marriage, parenthood, and aging amplified by mystery, lore, and imagery. A fabulous and fantastical journey into the heart of a husband and wife and into the unknown, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is by turns dark, mysterious, and foreboding. Bell imbues such imagination and brilliance into this tale. Bell provides a real insight into ourselves, and therein lies the real beauty of the story.
As the years pass and the couple gets older, the wife can no longer remember her husband or the foundling. Sadly, she cannot even remember the songs she once sang. Most arresting to me was the squid the husband turned into as he swam into the depths of the murky lake, his aches and pains and age dissolving away. Muted passages like these spoke volumes to me and lend the narrative richness and power.
Reminiscent of the work of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has already
garnered attention from the Indie Next list, choosing it as one of its selections for July. Bell’s lyrical language, his crystal clarity, and his sharp and colorful setting explain what all the fuss is about and herald the arrival of a major new literary talent.
When you open In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, you leave your world behind and enter a shadowy and forbidding landscape. And you will be so glad you did.