As cliché as it may sound, Matt Bell’s In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods presents an epic unlike any other that I have encountered, one that attacks conventions of love, marriage, and child rearing. Centered around the marriage of two unnamed protagonists, the tale follows their immigration from a faraway land, one beyond the mountain on a path they can longer quite find, to a patch of lakeside dirt. Unlike the typical novel of immigration, they move alone to an uninhabited land and thus face the themes of discovery, exile, and isolation alone. There is no city to transverse, no language to learn, only love to foster in their shared solitude.
It is here, next to the lake where the husband draws his fish and the forest in which he traps animals first for fur and consumption and later as an outlet for his internal angst, that the couple settles down, sculpts a house, and sets out to start a family. It is here they encounter the bear, a creature which always teeters in a stage of increasing decay and anger as it confronts the intrusion of the couple and everything it stands for. It is here that a seemingly normal land takes on a magical, if not surreal twist. We find a land where houses are not fixed structures, a land where animals can spring back to life in a harmless yet zombie-esque display, a land where a bears can shed their skins and humans can grow fur. Not that the novel is a work of fantasy per se, but rather a journey through a fantastical, fairy tale land more reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm than the benign, Disney constructs we see today. Plainly put, this land has consequences.
Familial creation comes at a cost for the couple, for as their failures to procure life mount with a series of failed pregnancies, the two become increasingly distant not only from each other but also from their past. As they integrate into the landscape, a power settles over them, a power the wife can use to sculpt and create—rooms and vegetables and locals but never life. The husband becomes consumed by the life that has failed to take full bloom, and the marriage descends down a path of darkness. Eventually, as the plot thickens and the world comes into full bloom, the descent becomes something deeper, all principal characters move into the earth searching out new hopes, loves, and worlds. Yet the new, as this family had already discovered, is precarious, ripe with mystery and not always better.
Written from the husband’s point of view, the novel tracks through their simple yet fantastical journey. Bell crafts prose that is deeply poetic and structured, prose that demands the reader’s attention as each and every word counts. The words, the themes, and the world is both moving and heavy. This book will make you think and this book will make you work, yet the payoff comes through the experience there in.
Favorite lines (normally I limit this section, but there were such gems this time around):
- “In both shapes he often revealed what he said my wife was doing wrong, and so began the long road of my turn against her, a difference from our recent past, where in my more temporary angers I had only turned away.”
- “That was the question I worried at, that I gnawed at like a bone, a cast-off rib too stubborn to share its marrow. And when at last that bone broke, what truth escaped its fracture, was by it remade: for even our bones had memories, and our memories bones.”
- “There mother and son slumbered, his head laid to her collarbone, perhaps naked beneath white sheets, bodies as close as hers and mine once were.”
- “And how I wished it had been different, that I had not walked away at the beginning of our marriage, when I thought it would always be so easy to return.”
- “What I saw in the mirror was my dying, and how at last it was so near, so near I could always smell it, could put my fingers to my skin and feel it moving beneath, beneath and also within.”
- “For all my life, I thought that she was the receptacle into which I would put some seed of mine, make the family I wanted, but it was I who was the empty vessel, carved stubborn as stone, as unburnable as the moon, ready at last to be filled with fire and with the song.”