They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
It is not difficult to imagine the young protagonists of Bad Blood agreeing, fervently, with Philip Larkin's sentiments. Parents are the source of all woe. Especially when they remarry. Especially when they remarry someone with adolescent offspring of their own, who—of course—immediately embark upon ruining everything.
Such is the disastrous outcome when Roley and Catriona's mother meets Katherine and John's father. The subsequent amalgamation of the two families goes about as well as might be expected. As the novel opens, their home is a war zone, and every mealtime degenerates into screaming and sulks; no, they definitely cannot just get along. Bratty Catriona and serious Katherine lock into an instant power struggle, fighting over who gets to be called [K|C]at like, well, cats. Sensitive Roley does his best to keep the peace, while overeating to cope with the stress and failing to muster the confidence to talk to girls. Quiet, thoughtful John, meanwhile, is largely overlooked in the mix, although he, at least, prefers it that way. To add insult to injury, the determined-to-be-happy parental couple decide that taking the whole tribe to the Lake District together is just what the doctor ordered. Because family holidays, as anyone who was ever a teenager can attest, are surefire generators of rest, ease, and domestic harmony.
Happily, or at any rate distractingly, the picturesque pile that the family borrows for the summer—a house near Lake Windermere, in which Katherine and John's late, mentally ill mother, Anne, grew up—proves to be sinister in every aspect:
It is a decaying house of shuttered windows, overlooking a tangled garden where strangling weeds are fighting the flowerbeds and winning. Winged reflections tremble briefly in the stagnant water of a garden pond and vanish into the grey distance. The woods rustle with animal movements and, inside the house, there's a scratching noise from behind the walls and under the floorboards. (p. 1)
Before long, the fractious four are making the acquaintance of a variety of things that go bump in the night (and in the day): an ancient, malevolent tree; a room filled with blunted scissors; a mysterious man named Fox; a pair of mischievous spirits that live in reflective surfaces; together with Anne's old collection of children's books with the names of all the good characters violently scored out; and a cache of splendidly creepy dolls:
'DELILAH and her DRONES' was written on the box and when Catriona finally got it open she caught her breath in shock.
Naked, faceless, hairless dolls lay jumbled up together like bodies in a mass grave. All of those on the top layer had faces rubbed smooth and featureless, except for the gaping holes where their eyes should be, savagely gouged out by something with a small sharp blade. (p. 38)
While at first this only intensifies the running battles, time and fear eventually combine to impose a truce upon the combatants, at least while they unravel the mystery—and learn the hard way the truth expressed in Larkin's second stanza: "But they were fucked up in their turn."
Lassiter writes well, generating the brooding, unsettling atmosphere with considerable skill. The cobwebbed recesses of the house and the overgrown paths of the neighbouring woodland are continually disorientating; the skies over both are invariably overcast, and night draws in all too quickly. Even a rare day when the sun shines—during a family outing on the shores of the Lake itself—is made an oppressive occurrence when Lassiter shows it to us largely through the pained, headache-induced squint of Roley. (This episode also captures brilliantly just how excruciating Doing Things As A Family can really be). And some of the happenings, especially anything involving those eyeless dolls, are just inherently unnerving.
Yet if some of the 'jump' moments in the narrative are a little obvious, the way they affect the characters, and are woven into the tangled relationships, keeps the scares involving. Delilah the doll turning up in unexpected places may not be an innovation, but Delilah's appearances managing to break even brash Catriona's composure gets the reader's attention—and the inevitable parental response, of censuring Catriona for what is taken (not without precedent) as a mean prank, gets our sympathy. (Eventually, and reluctantly; Cat is hard to like.) The parents are, as we might expect in a novel centred on teenagers, unfailingly oblivious to the evidence of their eyes, in terms of both the weirder events and the mundane ones alike. On the supernatural side of things this is hardly surprising. They scold the children for their fear of the dark, and for disappearing in the middle of the night, but completely miss when a magical spat turns the two 'cats,' briefly, literal. (John spots what has happened immediately, but his response is characteristically reserved: "It was a bit disappointing that they didn't recognize their own children, even if they were so transformed, but John hadn't really expected that they would," p. 280). At the same time, however, there is a recurring motif of disrupted or entirely neglected mealtimes, with the children repeatedly instructed to see to their own nourishment—and, naturally, doing no such thing—while the adults escape the battlefield to spend time alone together. (They do, however, feed the transformed cats almost as soon as they appear).
The mystery behind the happenings in the house, of Anne's childhood, the books, and the dolls, is similarly compelling—tightly plotted and cleverly constructed—in and of itself, but it is the emotional resonance it has for the characters that matters, as when, after the initial discovery of the dolls, we see Catriona taunt Katherine by going straight for what she knows to be her weak spot:
"Creepy," Roley commented. "Sounds like voodoo or something."
"Voodoo like black magic?" Catriona asked. Her eyes met Katherine's across the table as she added: "Your mum lived here, didn't she? Do you think she was the one with the sick mind?" (p. 41)
The novel rests on these difficult, expertly drawn interactions between the teenage characters, and the insecurities that the new family situation has produced, or exaggerated. All this is embodied in each child's relationship with his or her name—most obviously in the case of the two cats. The memory of Catriona's declaration, at their first meeting, that Katherine will have to give up being called Kat because "'I'm Cat and I'm older. You'll have to be Kathy'" sums up Katherine's sense of usurpation and dislocation ("she'd felt as if someone had taken a cloth and just wiped her out, like a whiteboard," p. 14). Once the eldest child of the family, forced into maturity early by her mother's death, Katherine is struggling to adjust to being "reclassified as younger, always having to squeeze into the small car seats like left-over luggage and being asked by Harriet what she liked to eat like a baby or an invalid when she was used to actually making their meals" (p. 59). Catriona, for her part, feels threatened whenever she is not the centre of attention; she lacks the imagination to be truly nasty, but is quick to lash out to protect the status embodied by her name.
Names are an issue for the boys, too. John's expresses his apparent unobtrusiveness:
"There isn't anything John can be shortened to […] It is a dull sort of thing to be called. I suppose that's what your sister [Catriona] meant when she said it was a waste of a name." (p. 5)
The fact that no pet name can be made of "John" rather neatly evokes the difficulty that others experience when trying to understand or get close to this extremely serious, guarded little boy. Another character later observes, "John's careful way of speaking interested her. It was as if he investigated each word for hidden traps before using it which gave him an air of astuteness" (p. 181). Roley's name, meanwhile, is a shortened form (of Roland), but it is not one he welcomes; indeed, he feels trapped by it just when he most wishes to grow up, associating it with the youthful self he longs to shed, "someone who was dim-witted, overweight, and slow" (p, 223).
And when Katherine remembers her mother's illness, the final blow likewise lies in a name:
Anne forgot conversations and things that had happened just the day before. Katherine told herself that at least she never forgot their names.
But one day she came back from school to find the front door swinging open and the house turned upside down as if it had been ransacked. […] they'd found Anne curled into a ball on the bed. She didn't remember anything then, not even her own name. (p. 62)
This motif of naming, as internal and external marker of identity, gradually seeps into the rest of the narrative. Ultimately, it is revealed as the key to both the central mystery, and to the way in which the characters variously grow up. The former, a childhood game given a life of its own by unhappy Anne, is revealed to have involved the forcible stealing and destruction of names; the latter requires each of the four children to set aside their old identity, and remake themselves as the people they wish to be, expressed symbolically by the choosing of a new name. It all makes for an accomplished, layered novel: clever, scary, and emotionally satisfying.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
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