Initially, I had doubts about Northern Ireland writer Stuart Neville’s new crime thriller (audio narration by Caroline Lennon) House of Ashes. (Oh no, not another book about men abusing women.) But the story gradually creeps into your consciousness until it becomes irresistible. Sara Keane, who’s English, and her newish husband Damien have moved from Bath back to his home in Northern Ireland. He’s started a job in his father’s construction business, which is completing work on a rehabbed and expanded country house for the couple. It’s called The Ashes, named for the ash trees that distinguish the property.
There’s some irony in the book’s title, as a prologue recounts a dangerous fire that forces an elderly woman named Mary to flee the house in the middle of the night. As Sara begins to uncover the house’s history, she has questions about how that fire started. Worse, she learns, sixty years previous, the house was owned by Ivan Jackson, who lived there with his sons, Tam and George, women named Noreen and Joy, and the young Mary, about age ten.
Not until the dazed child Mary walked into a grocery shop on the edge of the village did the shocked locals discover the women even existed. But all five adults are dead, in what the authorities conclude was a murderous spree by George, who then took his own life. Neville gives away the outcome early, leaving the narrative to describe how the residents arrive at that fatal juncture.
Sara can’t stop probing this old story. Damien does all he can to extinguish her curiosity, suggesting it’s an obsession linked to Sara’s fragile emotional state. Back in England, she tried to overdose on pills, the result of finally realizing how Damien has isolated her from her friends and family. Now, he’s put the Irish Sea between them. And you can’t stop wondering whether Sara’s experience will parallel the house’s dark history.
The chapters narrated by Mary that describe her life with Mummy Noreen and Mummy Joy (an ironic name for sure) become riveting. The three men work them like slaves and prevent any contact with the outside world. Mary has never been to school or church or a shop. In the daytime, the women cook and clean, and do some farm chores. At night, they’re locked in the dark basement. Even the slightest commotion risks Daddy Ivan taking off his belt and beating them. They daren’t attempt escape, because the men will catch and kill them. All of them, probably. And you believe it, knowing what eventually happens.
Damien has a more twenty-first century approach to domination. He handles the couple’s money; he has the car; all Sara has is a creepy house she doesn’t want to be in. It’s a gripping story of manipulation and fear, nicely paced, so that you’re invested in both the historical and the contemporary stories. Although the course of Sara’s relationship with Damian is predictable, the tension lies in wondering whether she will have the courage to do what she needs to do.
Irish actor Caroline Lennon—who has narrated more than 300 audio books—does an excellent job. Her Mary is convincingly simple—when she’s both a child who doesn’t understand and an adult who does.