Friday, 29 January 2016

The House on the Brink

John Gordon
Puffin Books

When a teenager follows a strange trail in the marsh, he finds himself haunted by the legend of King John's lost treasure and increasingly aware of mysterious undercurrents in the town where he lives.

Dating from 1970 this Fenland tale has a distinct M.R. James aura to it.  The story tells of a young man with the implausible name of Dick Dobbs who is deeply at odds with his surroundings.  He's disconnected from his family, painfully shy around strangers, hostile to those he dislikes but forgiving of his friends - which is just as well really.  he also has a profound connection with the water of the Fens; a gift later identified as 'divining'.

Into his life arrives a young girl, Helen, who shares his gift along with a neurotic widow, Mrs Knowles, who believes she is haunted by a sinister log.  Dick is drawn into her neurosis as he himself is trapped into the presence of the log and the trail it's taking on it's journey inland.

It's an odd and quite lovely story that maintains a delicious aura of sinister and mysterious goings on.  It's not without it's faults,  Dick is an unlikeable lead and he is a little too temperamental and changeable to empathise with.  The landscape, and in particular the water, is made much of in dialogue but in the narrative itself it's there merely as a conduit for bicycles which was a real shame.  Also, while we are on the subject of dialogue this became my biggest bugbear with the novel as conversations regularly deform and collapse in a confused muddle as Gordon tries far too hard to convey both the words and Dick's - and Helen's - ever changing, sudden and often perplexing mood swings.

At it's heart though 'The House on the Brink' is a rather lovely little tale of adolescence, emotion, madness, friendship, love and magic.  It has echoes of Jamesian tropes of obsession and horrors from the past best left alone and there are echoes of an Alan Garner like grounding in place and the stories that inhabit it which for me could have been more acutely woven into the narrative and would have raised the book to being something really rather special as opposed to being one that was eminently and entertainingly readable.

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