BOOK REVIEW: FOXLOWE, BY ELEANOR WASSERBERG (2016)

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 15.26.24In China Miéville’s door-stopping fantasy novel Perdido Street Station, the scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin becomes obsessed with understanding the mechanics of flight. He puts the word out that he’s looking for anything that flies: “I want birds, insects, bats… also eggs, also cocoons, also grubs, anything that is going to turn into a flying thing. That could be even more useful, actually. Anything which looks set to be up to dog-sized. Nothing too much bigger, and nothing dangerous. Impressive as it would be to catch a drud or a wind-rhino, I don’t want it.” Among the many creatures he ends up receiving, there is a weird, multicoloured caterpillar, species unknown. Grimnebulin pokes it and prods it, trying to figure out what it is, what it eats, how it works. At one point, he figures out that the caterpillar loves to eat a hallucinogenic substance known as dreamshit, which is super-weird. So it grows and grows, and Grimnebulin still doesn’t know what it is, what it’ll turn into. Then it goes into a cocoon. Wait, wait. And then… when it comes out, a horror of horrors is revealed: the caterpillar has become a slake moth, a monstrous, vile thing, armed with tentacles that will literally suck your mind out of your head.

In the best way possible, this is what it was like to read Foxlowe. While reading, I kept trying to figure out what it was, and where it was going, poking and prodding it, this strange little caterpillar of a thing. Was it… a coming of age novel about a girl raised by a cult? a gothic novel about a crumbling mansion and the sinister goings-on within? a fictional misery memoir of parental abuse and PTSD? a reflection on the power of group psychology? a villain origin story? a “what if Charles Manson was a woman” story? hippie horror? an idyllic paean to the English countryside? was the narrator headed for redemption? rebellion? corruption? Only very slowly the novel revealed itself to me, and only with the very last sentence did it fully reveal itself as the gloriously horrible slake moth that it is.

The novel follows a girl called Green, who is brought up in a hippie commune in rural Staffordshire, in a mansion called Foxlowe. There are two other children in this commune, Blue and Toby. They play strange games, take part in strange rituals, are punished in strange ways by the commune’s matriarch, Freya, who is also Green’s mother. They learn that, outside of Foxlowe, the Bad reigns.

Because Green herself narrates the book, very little is explicitly explained to the reader. Why would Green feel the need to explain what the Spike Walk is? She knows what it is, and she doesn’t know the world outside Foxlowe well enough to know that outsiders may not be familiar with such a thing. This is the sort of world-building I love: it forces you to figure things out by yourself, and, in so doing, it draws you in deeper and deeper. It also mimics the way we often actually encounter strange new worlds worlds in real life–disoriented, and without an instruction manual, without a handy guide to the biographies of all the people you’ll meet or diagrams explaining their customs. And it’s largely because of this lack of hand-holding that I felt like Grimnebulin studying his mysterious caterpillar.

I hesitated several days before writing this review. Mostly, this is because I knew I could not avoid creating some sort of expectation about the ending. Of course I haven’t said exactly what happens at the end of the book. I’ve also kept my description of the premise pretty basic. And I also want to make clear there is no twist, at least not the way I would define it: there is too much build-up leading up to Foxlowe‘s ending for it to count as a twist. Still, I’ve said the ending was like witnessing the birth of a monstrous mind-eating moth, and that will create expectations. But, ultimately, if it means that people will read this book, then surely that’s a good thing.

Because Foxlowe is a lovely, creepy thing, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

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