Review: RawBlood- by Catriona Ward

This is a blood and guts novel; or at least, the blood and the guts of the heart and the soul. I’ve just finished it, am sitting on my own in my flat, and I swear the silence around me is humming with a slightly deeper tone. The wind outside my window sounds rougher, and the moon, which I can just make out poking through the clouds, has a slightly more knowing appearance.

It’s a ghost story; or a love story, depending on how you wish to read it. It tells the story of RawBlood, the ancestral house of the Villarca family, who suffer a deadly curse which runs in their bloodline and binds them to the house till the end of their days. The Villarca family is described as having a violent, disturbing history, however the family on the maternal side has it’s own darkness to contribute.

The novel begins with Iris, a young girl who lives with her father at RawBlood, and has a friend called Tom who she is very close to. As she grows up, her feelings for Tom shift, as feelings often do as one grows up, and when it becomes clear how deeply she feels for him her father finally tells her the reason he holds onto her so tightly, and the reason he opposes her union with Tom.

They have a curse, their family, which means that they and anybody who comes into contact with them and the house ends up terrorised, or tortured, or dead. There is a white woman, who haunts the house and it’s inhabitants, and to look into her eyes is to look into the very pits of emptiness and despair. Iris’s father injects himself with opioids to keep the worst of the haunting at bay, and tells Iris that she mustn’t bring this torture onto Tom, and that if she cares for him she will let him go.

The story then jumps, to fifty years in the past, and the reader is introduced to previous occupants of the house who are engaged in gruesome and macabre experiments. It eventually becomes clear that these grizzly pursuits are an effort to find a cure for the Villarca curse; for one of these two men is Alonso Villarca, Iris’s father, and he is as haunted and deranged by the white woman as all his ancestors have been. His partner is eventually sent mad by the forces at work in the house, and a sequence of events which began in his and Alonso’s past.

Alonso’s partner’s sister enters the plot at the beginning of the ending arc, and has a heavy role to play in how events pan out. She is Iris’s mother, and is powerfully connected to the earth and it’s secrets. She is a witch, in simpler terms; she is a woman who trusts her intuitions and her inner instincts, and is determined to have the life she wishes, no matter the costs. She is brave, headstrong, devoted; and entirely complicit in all the horror which comes to pass within the novel and the lives of the Villarca family.

The reader is also introduced to Iris’s grandparents, and so learns how all the pieces come together to allow Iris herself to come into the world in the way that she does. She murders her father, eventually, and yet the reader is told of this in the opening lines of the first chapter. It is only on doing so, that she finally understands the horrendous nature of the curse which swims in her own blood; which she cannot rid herself of and which is simultaneously her and not her. She is then subjected to horrendous cruelties, at the hands of another mad doctor who performs multiple lobotomies on her in an effort to rid her of her apparent madness.

Iris was both a master of her own fate, for daring to love and to scorn the advice her of her father, and also entirely at the mercy of the fate which was installed within her at the very instance of her own birth. The novel jumps from past to present, all the way until the end where the cyclical nature of time and memory becomes a chillingly central force of the novel. Iris’s mother does not fully understand the consequences of her own actions until they finally stare her back in the face on the advent of her own demise- yet by then it is too late for anything to be altered. Or is it?

There are strong elements of witchcraft woven into the novel, and of the magic and mysteries of the earth and the blood, which I think Ward handles with superb grace and frightening depth. In fact, there were moment when I was reading this when I wondered whether Ward was delving into the mysteries and secrets of my own heart and my own subconscious mind; where the all secret and power lies. But this could just be the witchy element of my own soul responding to her visceral language and esoteric depictions.

The white woman grips the pages of this novel, and her true, utterly chilling nature is not revealed until the end of the novel, where all the previous actions and events seem to swoop together into one inexorable force which seems as obvious and clear as the blue sky and the grey green fields surrounding RawBlood. Past and present roll together into a long line of cause, effect and horrendous repercussion; Iris’s fate is tragic and monstrous, and chilled me to the deepest reaches of my soul.

Love remains, as a redemptive force; and the soft interjection of this after so much haunting and horror is gently and reverently handled. But for myself it was the sense of deep magic, and blood lust of this novel which worked to keep me gripped until the very end; where all the horror and the darkness becomes apparent, and the final horrendous nature of the fate of the Villarca’s becomes understood. The ending is inspired, for then the structure of the whole novel seems to wrap itself around the mind until the very essence of RawBlood screamed into my own heart and soul.

I love a good gothic ghost story, and I think Ward has written one which seems to take the raw, earthy force of Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” and taken it to its logical conclusion. The vast moors ring with the wild sense of nature, and thus RawBlood functions as a novel about love, fate, the strong ties of blood and ancestry and the struggle it can be to rid oneself of the past, especially when that past pulls tangibly from the very walls of an old family home.


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