Neil Spring’s The Burning House is an elegantly woven tale which weaves a tense and absorbing fiction surrounding the existing myths and perceptions of Boleskine House.
It was a victimless crime…
Estate Agent Clara is struggling to make a sale. With her abusive ex-husband on the brink of finding where she’s hiding, she needs to make a commission soon or lose her chance to escape.
Boleskine House on the shores of Loch Ness has remained unsold for years, and Clara is sure that an ‘innocent’ fire will force the price down. But the perfect crime soon turns into the perfect nightmare: there was a witness, a stranger in the village, and he’s not going to let Clara get away with it that easily…
Clara is a well-crafted character who, despite the unusual circumstances she finds herself in and her troubled history retains a sense of strength, even when her actions are flawed. Author Neil Spring makes it easy to retain our empathy with her, even when that feels uncomfortable.
Importantly, Spring offers some flawed, unpleasant characters but offers little in the way of justification for their actions. Central villain Oswald Cattenach is incredibly elaborate but the reveal of some of the more outlandish elements of his character is handled so excellently and at such a gradual pace that it is easy for the reader to suspend their disbelief a little further each time.
On the other hand, we are invited to empathise with some of the characters who have been pushed to their limits. Morality is fluid as we are invited, through Clara, to explore the implications of doing a bad thing for an understandable reason. Only those characters who have done terrible things without good reason are really villified.
There are a number of threads throughout the book that appear to work in parallel and there are times when it feels like one or two of them are dropped in favour of the most interesting parts. However, by the climactic scenes, everything is brought together in a way which is both satisfying and entirely makes sense.
The world-building around Boleskine House is very well-realised and descriptions of the house add a great deal to the tone of the book. By drawing on the folkloric idea of Boleskine (a favourite haunt of Aleister Crowley) as a place of sometimes sinister rituals, the scene is set for the action to follow. Even removing the emphasis on the supernatural, the book offers a suggestion that the very idea of a place like it could be infectious. The sequences of gore and violence are handled well, with many of the descriptions being very disturbing. A reccurring image of violence is excellently employed to add weight to Clara’s increasingly extreme involvement with Oswald.
While we spend the majority of our time with Clara, we are also invited into the thoughts of the supporting characters – sometimes with those we would really rather not spend much time with but also those who appear innocent within an incredibly murky world. This does not feel like Spring trying to force any empathy with characters like abusive ex-husband Karl, but merely investigates some of their inner motivations. There is no origin story for why Karl behaves so abhorrently – no deep, dark secret from his past which seeks to justify it – he is a character motivated by control. Both male characters Clara finds herself entangled with are ultimately concerned with control and while their methods differ, that quest for power is the central aim.
The Burning House keeps its revelations coming right up until the last few pages, still adding to the mood of the piece until the very end. I can’t help but feel that one character’s arc ends in a rather strange way, which seems at odds with the character’s construction up to that point. However, that is a very small complaint and doesn’t detract from the ongoing impact. In fact, it makes a relatively interesting point which I can’t delve into for risk of spoilers, but does so by depriving the reader of an actual end point for that character.
The Burning House is highly recommended to readers who want a tightly-wound thriller with a touch of magic and strong characters to drive the plot.
The Burning House is available from Quercus Books on March 21st 2019