The House of Ashes
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
When university student Sara meets architect Damien Keane in England, Sara is swept off her feet by Damien’s charm, love and attention. After Sara graduates and takes a job as a child protection officer, the couple marries, and things change. Damien becomes jealous, controlling, and aggressive, and manipulates Sara into distancing herself from her family and friends.
Sara’s subsequent breakdown gives Damien an excuse to move the couple to his hometown in Northern Ireland, where Damen’s ex-convict father Francie has bought – and is upgrading and expanding – an isolated farmhouse for his son and daughter-in-law. The local residents fear Francie, who’s mean, belligerent and has a reputation for violence.
Sara is lonely in Northern Ireland, with no job, no car, and no friends. It’s into this atmosphere that a disheveled old woman named Mary wanders early one morning and knocks on the Keanes’ farmhouse door. Mary insists it’s her house and asks where the children are. It turns out Mary is the home’s former owner, and she now resides in a care home. Damien quickly gathers Mary up and takes her back to the care home, brushing off Sara’s questions about the incident.
Sara’s curiosity leads her to nose around town, where she learns a mass murder occurred in the farmhouse sixty years ago, and Mary was the only survivor. Damien gets angry when Sara confronts him about this, saying the murders are ancient history and Sara should be more appreciative of Francie’s generosity.
Sara pays surreptitious visits to Mary in the care home, and Mary tells her that a recent fire, deliberately started by someone, forced her to sell the farmhouse. Mary also tells Sara there are children in the dwelling, hiding in the walls, corners, and floors. It’s clear terrible things happened in the house, and we learn exactly what as the story unfolds. Mary’s speech is sprinkled with Irish vernacular, but it’s easy enough to understand what she means.
The novel alternates back and forth between the past, when Mary was a child in the farmhouse, and the present, when Sara and Damien reside there.
In Mary’s most vivid memories of the past, she’s about ten years old, and she and two Mummies live in the cold damp basement of the farmhouse. Their plight is dire and may have been shared by other people, including children, who came and went. Mary’s recollections are sketchy, though, so parts of her story are uncertain.
In the present, Sara is lonely, dislikes living in a murder house, and is growing terrified of Damien’s almost pathological jealousy. Sara regrets not heeding her best friend’s warnings about Damien but doesn’t know how to extricate herself now. As Sara’s situation gets more and more harrowing, she starts to see the ghost of a woman as well as specters of children, who seem to be trying to tell her something.
All this leads to a dramatic double climax that seethes with agony and retribution.
This is an excellent thriller that’s gruesome and hard to stomach, but completely believable.