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Eleanor Waerberg: first novel of almost unbearable moral tension

Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg review: a richly atmospheric Gothic debut

Set in a remote country house run by the cult-like Family, this story of secrets and deception, told through a child’s eyes, is deeply unsettling

Of all the themes that we recognise as belonging to the Gothic tradition, secrecy is perhaps the most enduring and indispensable. Ever since Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the ur-text of the genre, crumbling manors have harboured their locked rooms. Whether they held a captive (as in Jane Eyre), an appalling secret (as in The Bloody Chamber) or nothing at all (as in Northanger Abbey), what was inside them was of secondary importance. What mattered, as any resolute heroine would tell you, was getting hold of the keys.

In her assured and richly atmospheric debut novel, Eleanor Wasserberg assembles some of the familiar elements; the Foxlowe of the title, as tradition requires, is a remote and forbidding country house. But she also undertakes a number of ingenious subversions. The novel’s protagonist, known only as Green, is not abducted or ensnared. She was born at Foxlowe, we discover, and raised there by the “Family”, the elders of a cult-like and deeply insular commune. The Family is presided over – in another defining reversal of archetypes – not by a brooding patriarch, but by Freya, an insidiously domineering matriarch.

But the cleverest of Foxlowe’s subversions is the mechanism by which its secrets are guarded. With a single horrifying exception, revealed in the closing pages, there are no locked rooms. Instead, truths are locked away within, suppressed by means of deeply internalised taboos. The adults (or the “grown”, in the commune’s sinister argot) never speak of the world they have left behind, renouncing even the names by which they were once known. Their new ones are conferred by Freya, who was – along with Richard, her sometime lover – one of Foxlowe’s founders. There is, Freya reminds Green more than once, “a power in naming”.

And Freya, we learn, knows all about power. The Family retains certain rituals of consensus, such as the meetings in the cavernous kitchen at which decisions are ostensibly taken, but it is Freya who pulls all the strings. She is deferred to by the other grown, though her influence has its limits. Some become “leavers” and are duly excised from Foxlowe’s communal memory. But Green is one of the “ungrown”; worse, she is Freya’s own child. Brutalised and manipulated from birth, she is conditioned beyond recognition. Far from longing to escape, she has yet to discover that she is a captive. Green is her own locked room.

The extent of this conditioning is revealed in some of the novel’s most unsettling sequences. The Family has devised its own creepy catechism (“All the Ways Home Is Better”), which the children have to recite. When they are suspected of some infraction, they may be “edged” (denied all physical and verbal contact) or face the “Spike Walk”. I won’t reveal the details of this latter punishment here, not because they are disturbing (although they are) but because their exposition, through the Green’s eyes, is such a magnificently controlled study of moral instinct and internalised abuse.

Foxlowe’s rejection of the outside world has been enshrined in makeshift doctrines, a hotchpotch of the Manichean (they invoke a malignant but nebulous external force called simply “the Bad”) and the druidical (they revere the summer solstice, and the nearby standing stones). Green’s torments, Freya insists, will purge the Bad. She is a shrewd enough abuser, too, to leaven her cruelties with just enough kindness, so that Green continues to hunger for her maternal love. The persistence of these childish urges, and the profound cognitive dissonance that keeps them alive, create an almost unbearable moral tension. Wasserberg sustains this with formidable skill, and documents its inevitable collapse to heartbreaking effect.

Central to all of this is the character of Green, oblivious both to her own trauma and the suffering she causes in her turn. When a baby is brought to Foxlowe and consigned to her care, we fear the worst. Entrusted with the child’s naming, Green elects to call her Blue. The name, she reflects, “means cold and sad. That was the first little thing I did to hurt her.”

But does she hurt her? And if she does, is she truly culpable? These complexities, too, are carefully sifted. As an infant, Blue is held to be especially susceptible to the Bad, making her a frequent target of Freya’s vindictiveness. She becomes, unsurprisingly, a resentful and rebellious child, and the focus of increasing paranoia about leavers. Green, meanwhile, is torn between her tender instincts towards her new “sister” and the abject loyalty that Freya’s brutality has instilled.

She is, to complicate matters further, a deeply unreliable narrator, but one whose perspective is managed with subtlety. From it emerges a study of moral dysfunction that is meticulous, intimate and compelling. Foxlowe may give up its secrets, in the end, but it never gives up its hold.

Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans (W&N)