The Girl from Rawblood by Catriona Ward
The genre-bending creativity of David Mitchell meets the gothic voice of Susan Hill in this highly praised debut
Iris and her father are the last of the Villarca line. For generations, the Villarcas have been haunted by “her.” Her origins are a mystery, but her purpose is clear: when a Villarca marries, when they love, when they have a child—she comes, and death follows.
Confined in their lonely mansion on Dartmoor, Iris makes her father a promise—to remain alone all her life. But when she’s fifteen, Iris breaks that promise. She dares to fall in love, and the consequences of her choice are immediate and heartbreaking. From the sun-spotted hills of Italy to the biting chill of Victorian dissection halls, The Girl from Rawblood is a lyrical and haunting historical novel of darkness, love, and the ghosts of the past.
“She comes in the night. Sometimes, in mist or fog. A woman, or once a woman. White, starved…Have you not felt her? Waiting in the shadowed places outside the lamplight, at the bottom of wells. Behind you, in long dark corridors…”
I just explained this book from start to finish in full spoiler-ridden glory to my fiancé. He looked at me afterward, slightly aghast, and said, “The hell did you just read?” Then he started laughing. “How the hell do you review that?”
I’m still struggling to answer both.
This book is a gloriously gothic horror story, reminiscent, at times of the great masters who birthed the genre. The fact that this is the author’s debut is slightly mind-blowing. This reads like something you’d expect from a person in their mid-60s, who has been writing for thirty plus years, honing their craft, building their vocabulary, perfecting their prose.
The story itself is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Set in the early 20th century, on the moors of southwest England, it opens with a young girl named Iris, and her friend Tom. Her only friend. The rest of the locals fear and revile her and her father, who is her sole surviving relative, for they are descendants of not one, but two cursed bloodlines – the Hopewells, and the Villarcas – and hail from an ancestral home with an ominous name: Rawblood.
“Rawblood. Home. It sounds like a battle, like grief, but it’s a gentle name. “Raw” from scraw, which means “flowing”, for the Dart River that runs nearby. “Blood” from bont, a bridge. Old words. The house by the bridge with the flowing water.
It’s a struggle, in the beginning, to understand the superstitious locals, for Iris is but a child, and sees the world through a child’s eyes. It’s only as she begins to grow that she notices that sometimes the shadows in her house don’t move the way you expect them to. That she begins to realize there is more to her father’s frenzied protectiveness. At first, she thinks it’s protectiveness of her, but as she blossoms into a teenager, she begins to fear that in reality, he’s protecting everyone else from…them.
I mentioned above that she’s the heir apparent to two cursed bloodlines. Most of her ancestors died young and tragically. Those who survived into old age died alone in their beds with only their cold, shriveled hearts for company, for, you see, the killing curse is triggered by romantic love.
The moment one begins to fall, she appears out of the darkness. And she takes them. Iris’ father tells her the tales the day he begins to fear that her friendship with Tom is blossoming into something more. He tells her of all those in their family who have succumbed to the curse. Some see her and go mad, and kill their loved ones before she can. Others simply die of fright. Still more claw their own eyes out to rid themselves of the sight of her.
Iris, in a fit of supreme arrogance, thinks that he is manipulating her. That he’s afraid that she’ll leave him, and that’s why he’s been so overprotective. If he cages her in, she can never fly away.
If only that were the case. She learns the error of her arrogance the hard way. Violently and tragically. But this is only the beginning of her story, and to understand how it all ends, we must first go backward, through time, to how it all began.
This book is told in alternating timelines. It’s not often that this brand of storytelling works for me, but Ward pulls it off beautifully, weaving together the past and present in such a way as to keep you fully engaged with every narrator. Of which, there are many.
A bit of advice: don’t get frustrated when you switch from one storyline to the next. Slow down. Don’t rush. Pay attention to each. For every single chapter in here is important. Every character and every scene playing a pivotal role in the tragedy of this family. This book is a slow burn, a longer read, so I suggest saving it for a time when you feel you have plenty of attention and patience to devote to it.
I do want to say that this is so much more than a ghost story. It’s a tale of life and love and heartache and grief and death and survival. Every chapter builds upon the one that came before it, every character feels raw and real.
I’m not sure if everyone will love it as much as I did, because it’s just so…different that I almost hesitate to suggest it. I guess I’ll say that if passages like the following give you a prosegasm:
“Sometimes, I walk through it in my dreams – the interior of my heart. It is like a black land, where black flags hang in tatters and venomous plants grow in sickly clumps and serpents writhe…A deadly night garden, my heart.”
Or if you ever thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if The Historian, The Thirteenth Tale, Dracula, and Bleak House got together and had a love child?” then this book is for you.