From superstars of the crime world, to more niche events to satisfy the gothic aficionados among us, Sheffield’s very own literature festival Off The Shelf is set to provide another bumper year of literary delights.
This fortnight I take a look at some highlights of the 2018 programme. I also pay a visit to Hope Valley College, a school in North Derbyshire that has been able to buck the national trend and invest in its library for the children. And I have a deliciously sinister read of the fortnight for you. You can get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @AnnaCaig
Little Eve by Catriona Ward
Catriona Ward’s 2015 first novel, Rawblood, was one of those unexpected books that
appears out of nowhere and knocks your socks off. So I couldn’t wait to read this recently
Ward revisits the same territory that she inhabited so successfully in her debut here: a weird,
dysfunctional family living at a striking location, where nothing is quite what it seems. But in
Little Eve, she turns the freaky dial right up to eleven.
In 1939, Winston Churchill said of Russia: ‘It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an
enigma,’ and this book is much like that. With the added frisson that not only is the plot
complex, but the nature of the document we are reading itself becomes part of the mystery.
I don’t want to give the impression that this book is esoteric though. It is absolutely riveting.
The eponymous Little Eve is Evelyn, a girl who lives in a ruined castle in the Highlands,
Altnaharra, along with two older women and an assortment of siblings gathered from a
variety of sources. The whole strange group is presided over by the authoritarian ‘Uncle’, a
self-styled snake god figure who keeps them in near-starving servitude.
The book begins with the discovery of four mutilated corpses: members of Eve’s ‘family’
murdered and placed in the stone circle at Altnaharra (the description here is spectacular; it
will be a long time before I forget the image of a seagull dropping a human severed thumb).
And from there Ward sends out strands of story into both the past and the future as we
untangle what really happened.
The creative acrobatics in Ward’s depiction of life on Altnaharra are extraordinary. Uncle is
an abusive cult leader, but we inhabit this world so vividly that we almost become members
of his cult ourselves, counting each mouthful of food we are permitted to eat, covering our
mouths with tar and squeezing into the underground punishment cell.
Ward delves into the darkest, most desperate recesses of the human mind. But there are
glimpses of redemption along the way. And the writing is just glorious.
Ward is carving out a niche for herself as the queen of gothic stories that twist and turn their
way through an atmosphere thick with the uncanny. I loved Rawblood so much I didn’t know
whether the follow-up could compare.
But this is superb.