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Title
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
Author
Matt Bell
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Soho Press
Pages
312
Price
$25

There is a world of flesh inside Matt Bell's debut novel – muscles torn and knit again, beasts raised from the dead with pieces missing, even a miscarried son swallowed whole by his grieving father. Rooms and children are sung into existence while a second moon of mingled flesh blots out the sky above. Every chapter lingers like a bruise, casting a shadow on what follows.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods begins with a husband and wife, a couple who have set out on their own to build a new life on a distant shore. Severing any connection to their homeland, this couple seeks to start a family together, to make something new and untouched by the past.

Miscarriage after miscarriage drives both partners apart, and as time passes, attempts to restore their old bond become fraught and depraved. Their choices reshape the very myth they inhabit, a story narrated entirely by the husband. No names are given beyond archetypes and titles – mother, father, foundling, bear. There are few signposts for readers to follow.

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Plot entwines with language in this novel, every development providing another layer of meaning to the words that came before. The path to resolution remains hazy, hinging on reversals and ambiguous reconciliations. Occasionally, readers may feel much like the wife herself, who warns the husband at one point "I have grown so weary of these many beginnings, and it is only endings that I still crave, only middles I might agree to bear."

The language here is biblical, meant to be read aloud like a psalm or a blood-soaked fable. Each sentence is weighted as an incantation. Entire sections are spread out like prayers or songs. Old stories are recalled through the rhythm and structure of Bell's carefully crafted sentences.

Despite its beauty, the prose is relentless at times, hammering the reader repeatedly to acknowledge the war inside the narrator's body, the changes in the landscape, the physical impact of the myth upon its players. There is little room to breathe or think.

Throughout the novel, Bell's characters pursue new definitions for this unforgiving world they've built and burnt together. Words like mother, father and ghost join with traditional elements like earth and water to supply a rickety foundation. These elements provide a framework for the narrator to hang his fear and guilt upon, to air out his grievances. His failings are continually given physical form throughout each chapter, wracking the environment around him and eventually his own body.

With this debut novel, Matt Bell does the same to our literary traditions, reworking myths, rituals and fictions into something that can hold his visceral, primal vision. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods provides us with a new, unstable literary element, something scavenged from the old, something bright and wet and vital.

Andrew F. Sullivan's first book, All We Want Is Everything, has just been published.

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