Such Pretty Things
Horrified’s Ally Wilkes reviews Such Pretty Things by Lisa Heathfield, a short and nightmarish novel for fans of Susan Hill or Henry James...
Lisa Heathfield’s novel about the ‘silent roar’ of grief and alienation is told in an arresting, sparse, and literary tone. Taken from their parents and sent to live with their Auntie in her unfamiliar country house, Clara and Stephen only have each other – or do they? Such Pretty Things delicately draws this sibling relationship with all its guilt, responsibility and jealousy, gradually piling on the pressure, until the near-intolerable tension and dread comes to a nightmarish climax. Part Misery (Stephen King, 1987), part I’m The King of the Castle (Susan Hill, 1970), Heathfield deftly evokes the violence and cruelty under the surface of childhood – and maternal love.
Although we’re told up-front that the setting is Scotland, 1955, there’s a timeless quality to much of the book. The siblings’ mother has been desperately injured in a fire – ‘she’s still asleep,’ and has been for months – and their father can’t juggle the responsibilities of work and caring for Clara (fourteen) and Stephen (eight). So they’re driven into the Scottish countryside to stay with an aunt and uncle they’ve never met, in the immediately lovely house in which their mother grew up: ‘Clara listens for echoes of her mother’s childhood voice, but hears only the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece.’ Uprooted children and distant relatives were once a staple of children’s fiction, and Such Pretty Things excels in drawing a first few days – with all their attendant awkwardness – which could come straight from Carrie’s War (Nina Bawden, 1973) or Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce, 1958).
The first half of the novel is a masterful slow burn, with tiny glimpses of the uncanny adding up to much more than the sum of their parts – the trees watching through the childrens’ window, Auntie’s off-kilter point of view, and the ancient-looking dolls (the titular ‘pretty things’) which people the empty house. Uncle Warren doesn’t want the children there; they’re separated from him, thrown back on each other, and the weird, trying-too-hard desperation of Auntie to mould them in her – and the house’s – ideal image.
Heathfield has a very delicate hand on the depiction of the sibling relationship, with Clara’s sense of responsibility and Stephen’s craving for a mother – any mother will do. They read authentically as children, though, sneaking out to explore the house’s grounds and surrounding woods, and puzzled by the arbitrary-seeming rules of their new life. Clara is on the cusp of adulthood, able to see that country from a distance, but ‘everything still feels so unfamiliar, a world she’s stepped into by mistake, and can’t quite find her way back from.’ The slow unpacking of this relationship, against the background of an increasingly off-kilter Auntie, and the lingering roar of guilt and shock around their mother’s accident, is a real treat to read.
Darkness creeps in, bit by bit, in a way that will appeal to fans of Henry James or Susan Hill’s childhood psycho-drama I’m The King Of The Castle. We get a visceral glimpse of their mother’s fate – ‘trapped in the blazing shed. Trapped now in bandages that stick tight to her melting skin’ – as well as the clue that her brother Edwyn, who met a similarly gruesome end in childhood, had prevented her from giving Stephen the maternal warmth he desperately needed. And outdoors, there are circles in the long grass, beetles trapped in jars, foetal clay figures, and a fox in the hen-house: ‘even pretty things die’. The violence and cruelty under the surface of childhood are skillfully brought to the surface, and the book tips into its second act with the acknowledgement that there may, after all, be something very wrong with Auntie.
It’s easy to use words like ‘nightmarish’, but this perfectly describes the turn this book takes: there’s a horrifying dream-like inevitability to the way events spiral out of control, coupled with a childish sense of powerlessness. It’s an intensely claustrophobic novel, with Clara and Stephen trapped under the ministrations of Auntie; their freedoms curtailed bit by bit; the telephone cut off; and spine-tingling hints of a transforming and uncanny force in the house. I won’t spoil the ending, but it made me immediately want to go back and re-read the slim book: Such Pretty Things is short, elegantly crafted, and horribly powerful.
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