Catriona Ward

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Ted Bannerman lives in the house at the end of Needless Street with his cat, Olivia. Sometimes his daughter, Lauren, comes to stay; sometimes the visits are fun, and often they’re stressful.

Delilah Walters has one mission in life: to find and punish the man who took her little sister eleven years earlier. After much searching, Delilah – Dee – has come to the conclusion that, despite being cleared by the police at the time, Ted is the prime suspect. Moving in to the empty house next door to his, she notices many strange things, like the fact that she’s never seen Lauren arrive at or leave Ted’s house. And what of Ted’s frequent trips into the woods next door to his house? Could this be where he has hidden the body of Dee’s little sister?

Where do you start with a book like The Last House on Needless Street? You’re going to come at it with pre-conceptions; that’s unavoidable. It’s difficult to avoid the hype. A gothic masterpiece, it has been called. Well, one of those two words describes it to a tee; the other is debatable. And Catriona Ward is an award-winning horror novelist, which is going to influence you, going in. But The Last House on Needless Street defies categorisation. It’s not your average horror novel, though there are moments of pure horror between its covers. Nor is it, strictly, a psychological thriller, though it shares many traits with some of the best books in that genre. What it is, though – and much to my delight – is very dark. And, yes, “masterpiece” is a very apt descriptor.

The first person we encounter – and the first voice we hear in a novel told through a rotating series of first-person viewpoints – is Ted Bannerman. Ted seems to have problems, a big man ill-at-ease in his skin and still unsure of a world where he has no-one to look after him. Think of Bing Partridge from Joe Hill’s N0S4A2 or Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and you’ll have some idea of the type of character we’re dealing with here.

Today is the anniversary of Little Girl With Popsicle.

This is Ted’s opening sentence, which doesn’t help to allay our fears that Ted might well be a very bad man. Delilah Walker certainly thinks so: she has spent the last eleven years trying to find out what happened to her younger sister. After eliminating every other lead – embarrassing herself and getting into trouble with the police in the process – Ted is the only remaining suspect. There’s something about Dee, or maybe it’s something about Ted, that puts us on her side, preparing to discover the worst; asking ourselves if Ted’s daughter, Lauren, might not actually be Dee’s little sister, Laura. Ted’s not quite right, that’s for sure, and some of Lauren’s comments certainly don’t help to assuage our suspicions.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this unique novel is that one of the narrators turns out to be Olivia, Ted Bannerman’s beloved cat. Anywhere else this might seem comical, but here it just serves to unsettle us further than we already are. And it’s the first inkling that things might not be as they seem. Because regardless of what you think you’re reading, or what theories you form as you read The Last House on Needless Street, I can guarantee that you are completely wrong. This is not horror in the traditional sense, but it’s one of the most horrific novels you’re likely to have come across in the past handful of years. You’ll come away drained and in awe, speechless and sad. Most of all, though, you’ll come away satisfied – because while it’s not what you expect, it’s still an incredibly powerful story with a very satisfying conclusion – and changed. Prepare for Ted and Olivia, Dee and Lauren to take up residence in your head for some time to come.

I’m sad to admit that I was unaware of Catriona Ward before The Last House on Needless Street. I have added her back catalogue to my to-be-read stack and hope to make a start before 2021 is out. This, though, is destined to be her breakout novel, a novel that defies genre but which is already doing wonders through word of mouth. Thankfully, the hype is real, and The Last House on Needless Street is nothing less than a masterpiece. The distinct voices bring these characters to life, while the secrets that they hide from each other and themselves are enough to keep us glued to the page and to keep us guessing until the cracks begin to show, and the house of cards that they have built around themselves comes tumbling down. It’s still early to be proclaiming best books of the year, but I’m trying to work out what I can drop from my Top Five of All Time to make room for this. It is, quite simply, not to be missed, so what are you waiting for?

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