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The House of Ashes    by Stuart Neville order for
House of Ashes
by Stuart Neville
Order:  USA  Can
Soho, 2021 (2021)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Stuart Neville's noir mystery, House of Ashes, is set in Northern Ireland, where Sara Keane has accompanied her husband Damien from England, where she suffered a nervous breakdown. The story opens well before that though, as we see a mad old woman barely escape after her house is burned down. She's less concerned for herself than for the children who still need her - but who are they?

Fast forward to Sara Keane trying to scrub brownish-red stains off her kitchen floor's flagstones, when the old woman knocks on her door. Sara's still unpacking boxes in this house (the Ashes) that's more than a century old. Her father-in-law, Francie, had acquired it for a song (rebuilt after a fire) and given it to Damien, who now works for him. Its original stone flooring is intact. Sara noticed the red stain the first morning. She keeps scrubbing, but it keeps coming back.

When she opens the door to the old woman, she's told to get out of her house, and asked where the children are. Damien drives Mary back to her care home, but Sara worries about her and later visits her there. The story moves back and forth in time, revealing the horrific abuse that Mary and other children suffered in the house in the past, and Sara's abuse by her controlling husband in the present. She finds some help from an electrician who works on the house, but violence escalates.

Fortunately, Sara does eventually fight back, leaves Damien, brings the house's dark history to light, and takes Mary to the ocean she's dreamed about all her hard life. The House of Ashes is well written but often very difficult to read.

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