Little Eve by Catriona Ward
Little Eve is the best gothic horror book I read last year. Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2018, it won the Shirley Jackson award and the British Fantasy Award for Best Horror Novel. It’s a book saturated with atmosphere, filled with clues, puzzles, masks and secret identities. Ultimately, it’s about cults, serpents, sisters, lies, and love.
The book starts in the 1920s, when a local man in a remote Scottish village discovers the bodies of everyone who lives in the rotting castle on the bluff. All are dead except one. Dinah, a young woman his age, has survived. Her story is strange, but the group—the “family”—who lived at the castle were strange to begin with. The mystery remains as the story shifts; to an earlier death in 1917, and forward to the aftermath of the mass death at the castle.
The story is told among shifting points of view. Dinah and her sister Evelyn live at the castle with Nora, Alice, Elizabeth and Abel, and are led by Uncle. Uncle is a follower of a snake-centered belief system, holding regular rituals, and methodically starving his followers. Relationships are tangled. Dinah and Evelyn are sisters emotionally but not biologically. The others in the household have equally murky antecedents and connections, and everything orbits Uncle, with his viper and his ritual honey, which, in one of the creepiest tropes of the book, must be licked from his fingers.
Evelyn and Dinah are the “insider” points of view, and there are two point of view characters from outside the cult; Inspector Black and Jamie MacRaith, who discovered the bodies. Jamie knew Dinah and Evelyn from their brief stint in the village school. When Jamie’s father, the headmaster, is murdered, Inspector Black arrives on the scene. He’s an immediate threat to Uncle and the family because he thinks one of them killed the headmaster.
The book is filled with interiors—interiors of people’s thoughts, interiors of buildings, especially the ruined castle. Probably much later than it should have, I started to see that I couldn’t trust anything Dinah or Evelyn said, not because they were lying, but because they were being lied to. Identities are fluid; names are meaningless, relationships, to uncle, are disposable. People leave, or die… or do they?
The story is complex and convoluted, but I was struck over and over by how masterfully Ward creates mood and setting. After the claustrophobic scenes in the castle, when one of the girls is walking in the woods, I too felt like a was breathing fresh air. The steady, systematic erosion of self, through Uncle’s manipulations, his lies and his withholding of food, was immersive, and I believed it when the girls betray each other to him. When Evelyn sets herself on a course to become the cult leader, it was completely plausible.
The masks kept changing, the illusions spinning, up to the very end. Who is really dead? Who is really who? What is family? What is sisterhood? Ward keeps these ideas swirling as she leads us through a tricky, dark-mirrored maze of lies and half-truths to the end. A shivery, disturbing gothic read that I highly recommend.