The House on the Lake opens with an anonymous narrator reflecting on the loss of all she ever wanted. “Love. Family. Home.” The reader has no idea how she has fallen into this dire situation but something terrible has happened. There is blood in the snow and the police are breaking down the door.
Although this psychological thriller and domestic noir starts with a bang, it took me around fifty or so pages to properly settle into the narrative as there is quite a lot going on. The short, hooky prologue is followed by chapters that alternate between timelines. Two women have lived at Rowan Isle House in Yorkshire. Lisa’s story is a contemporary thread while the other starts in 2002 when an eleven-year-old girl lived there with her father. Their experiences of living at the house are very different. It took a few chapters in each timeline for me to feel engaged with the characters, but once I fell into the rhythm of the novel, it was as pacy read with much to enjoy.
Lisa has run away from her abusive husband, Mark, taking their young son, Joe, with her. A friend has offered Rowen Isle House as a safe house, a place to hide, but when Lisa arrives she finds it has no heating, electricity or running water, no modern facilities at all. Life is tough enough with a small child without having to draw water daily from the lake. Joe has tantrums and Lisa finds it very difficult to manage her young son. Mark’s controlling behaviour has already had a profound impacted on Joe who regularly asks for his father and tells Lisa she is a bad person.
In 2002 a young girl, initially only known as Solider, is living at Rowan Isle House with her father. She calls him “Sarge” and it is clear he suffers from PTSD. Much of the girl’s story is told through journal entries. She does not attend school, Sarge teaching her to read and write. They live an isolated, self-sufficient lifestyle. Her father is putting her through military-style training, taking her into the woods to learn to hunt and kill for their survival. Some of this narrative is hard to read as Sarge’s treatment of his daughter is harsh and disturbing at times. Their relationship is determined by the state of Sarge’s mental health which fluctuates leaving the girl to try to predicate her father’s moods. She often wonders about the “Dead Mother” and misses her, although it is clear she died years earlier. I liked this character, her plucky determination and willingness to try to please the father she loves, at least, in the beginning.
Rowan Isle House connects the two women as does Isobel who lives in the nearby village with her elderly father. She befriends both Solider and Lisa and, initially, she seems to live a straightforward, comfortable life. As the story unravels, the reader discovers she too craves a loving, family life, which increasingly, seems to allude her.
I enjoyed Ellwood’s fluid and easy-to-read writing style. There are strong, vivid images of not only the house and characters but of the wild Yorkshire landscape, of the crag, the woods and the lake itself. The House is isolated and lonely and far from the safe haven its occupants want it to be. Filthy, sinister and claustrophobic, Rowen Isle House is a character in its own right.
The pacing and taut tension of the narrative is gripping. There are secrets from the very beginning driving the reader on, chapter by chapter. Well placed twists and turns never quite allow the reader to feel comfortable, the secrets of the House and characters always just out of reach.
Ellwood skilfully builds the tension to a dramatic and satisfying denouement. Questions are answered and loose ends tied up but not too tightly. Soldier and Lisa’s futures are left a little open enabling the reader to ponder how their lives might be after the novel ends.
The House on the Lake is likely to appeal to readers who enjoyed novels such as The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and When I Go To Sleep by S J Watson. A slow burner of a novel which develops into something pacy and gripping, dark for sure but with a glimmer of hope in the end.
The House on the Lake by Nuala Ellwood is published by Penguin. Buy the book.