The Last House on Needless Street
Sarah Johnson reviews Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, a Gothic novel with a tantalising puzzle-box narrative...
The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward’s third novel, begins with an unsolved crime: the abduction of Lulu, a six-year-old girl taken from her family one summer’s day. The story is initially told by Ted, who lives on Needless Street near the lake where Lulu disappeared. Ted calls Lulu the ‘Little Girl With Popsicle’ and can’t forget the anniversary of her abduction, as even eleven years after Lulu’s disappearance, he’s a suspect – or feels like one. Certainly, Dee (Lulu’s older sister) holds him responsible, and when the reader hears the story from her perspective, it appears likely. As the story progresses, however, it becomes apparent that each remembers events with a skewed point of view. This engaged me in the narrative to such an extent that I found it hard to put the book down; when I did, I was still trying to untangle the narrative threads in my mind.
The Last House on Needless Street is a hard read at times. Stories of human cruelty are always horrific, particularly when the perpetrator is trusted – even loved – by their victim. The book is complex in both character motivations and the underlying truth of the matter, and neither is really apparent until the end (although Ward provides numerous tantalising clues throughout). Once I’d read the book, I returned to several sections and appreciated them even more in the light of my new understanding. It’s very much a puzzle narrative, and structured as one. As a reviewer, I have to try to give my thoughts on the book without revealing too much, because solving the mystery of Needless Street pulled me through the story.
This story is also narrated by Olivia and Lauren. Olivia is a cat, so has unique insight into what is happening, what has happened, and who Ted is. Lauren is Ted’s daughter, and possesses important information about her father which transforms the character. The narrative is divided into chapters that focus on individuals, in turn, providing different perspectives on people and events. At first, I found the structure fragmented my understanding of exactly what was happening, but this mirrors the characters’ lives: there’s no omniscient narrator, no one person who guides the reader through. We are presented with scraps of memories and present lives, and it’s all too easy to assemble these into the wrong shape.
As the characters chase ghosts, so does the reader, and the Gothic is always close at hand. An early reference to Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847) reflects the extent to which Dee is haunted by Lulu, just as Heathcliff is haunted by Catherine. Dee sees her sister everywhere, alive and dead:
‘She kneels and comes face to face with it, the child, its silver white flesh dappled in the moonlight, its mouth a black cherry, eyes gleaming like lamps, filled with the light of death, scalp stripped and wounded, where the birds have plucked the hair from her skull.
“Come in,” Dee whispers and puts out her hand.’
To Dee, Ted’s house ‘smells of death; not of rot or blood but dry bone and dust; like an old grave, long forgotten’, and although just a house on an ordinary street, its exterior is boarded and interior decaying. In this house – where his mother took her life – Ted is haunted: she is many years dead, yet still as loved and feared by him. The house is a prison and a sanctuary, a reliquary of agony and torment. It is only outside the last house on Needless Street that Ted finds occasional respite. Descriptions of his love of nature reveal his complex character: he takes joy in feeding birds, and the nearby forest is a source of comfort to him; at times he feels he is ‘in its heart’. As in Wuthering Heights, vivid descriptions with sinister overtones celebrate nature – while implying it should not be underestimated. Ted draws strength from it, but to Dee the forest is full of the ‘sliding passage of snakes.’ As with everything in this novel, it is a matter of perspective.
A puzzle narrative combined with Gothic influences makes The Last House on Needless Street a compelling read. With her shifting points of view, Ward draws the reader on, offering occasional glimpses of the truth which is revealed in the final chapters. As Ward writes, ‘you never know what books are going to do to you,’ and in this case, where they will take you.
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