Little Eve: A Deliciously Dark Period Tale About Family, Belief, and Trauma

Books Reviews Catriona Ward
Little Eve: A Deliciously Dark Period Tale About Family, Belief, and Trauma

Here in the heart of spooky season, it seems important to say: If you’re a fan of horror stories of any stripe and you’re somehow not reading Catriona Ward, please fix your life immediately.

A master at crafting smart, twisty, and downright disturbing stories that are both psychologically rich and deeply emotional, Ward’s fiction often eschews many of the familiar tropes and tricks most frequently associated with the horror genre. Yet, her stories are still impossible to look away from, and the kind of propulsive reads that mean you’ll probably stay up well past your bedtime just to find out what happens next. (Guilty as charged, is all I’m saying.)

Little Eve was originally published in the U.K. in 2018, where it went on to win the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. That it (finally!) arrives in America following the success of Ward’s other (excellent) recent efforts, The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial, not only allows U.S. readers the chance to delve into the work that initially made her a name to watch in the world of horror fiction but to fully appreciate her remarkable range as an author.

A Gothic period piece told across two timelines, the book explores similar themes to her other novels—family, trauma, and questions of science versus faith—but manages to still somehow feel like nothing we’ve read from her before. Ward is a fantastic storyteller, and perhaps there is no better canvas for her skills than a story about how stories are made and the ways that snippets of truth ultimately form the basis for terrifying legends.

Set in a perfectly gloomy seaside corner of rural Scotland, the events of Little Eve jump between various years from 1917 to 1945 to retell the story of a brutal series of murders in the ruins of a castle known as Altnaharra. When local butcher Jamie MacRaith arrives at the half-ruined keep in January 1921 to deliver a slab of beef for Hogmanay, he discovers almost half a dozen dead bodies laid out in a disturbing formation around a group of standing stones, each missing an eye.

Dinah, the only survivor, claims her disturbed younger sister Eve finally went mad and offered her whole family up as a sacrifice to the strange being known as the Adder they’ve been raised to worship. What exactly happened to Eve and to the residents of Atnaharra is a story that only the rest of the novel can tell, but trust when I tell you its secrets are nothing like what you think.

Ward spins a twisty mystery that spans the years immediately preceding the murders through decades following the event, following both Eve’s descent into darkness and Dinah’s struggle to heal in its aftermath. The story deftly weaves everything from cult dynamics to questions of poverty and class together to tell the story of Eve’s family, a ragtag group of children raised by a mysterious man only known as Uncle, who fills their heads with the story of a supposedly all-powerful sea serpent who will one day rise to destroy the world and purposefully sets the children at odds with both the more modern and supposedly “impure” residents of the nearby village of Loyal. There’s Nora, seemingly perpetually pregnant; Abel, a weak and ill-tempered boy who loves to rat out his siblings for his own gain; Dinah, who longs to explore the world outside their island; “Baby” Elizabeth, a constantly filthy eleven-year-old who is obsessed with injured animals and refuses to speak; and Eve, who longs for her Uncle’s power.

Through his bizarre rituals involving a captive snake, supposedly magical honey, divine visions, and promises of a new world order, Uncle keeps the family loyal and desperate for his approval. Harsh punishments like “Wane,” in which a child’s mouth is sealed with pine tar before they are essentially thrown in a basement for days, or “Shunning,” in which no one is allowed to speak to or acknowledge the guilty party are described in the sort of detail that is as horrifying as any jump scare. These are just a few of the tools that Uncle uses to set the children in direct competition with one another, encouraging and taking advantage of each’s desire for his approval by promising that one day, one of them will take his place as Adder.

As the clock ticks down to the horrific event we all know is coming—and have seen much of the fallout from—Ward ramps up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. Yet, she also takes time to show us an Eve wrestling with the things she’s been told to believe in, as she meets a variety of locals, including a young girl named Rose who works for a traveling circus and Chief Inspector Christopher Black, a man of science who seems determined to convince Eve that the things she’s been taught are not only wrong but dangerous.

Little Eve is the sort of book that will both surprise and shock you, as well as ask you—as Ward’s other novels do—to question your assumptions as a reader, from the expectations you have about what kind of story you’re reading, to what sort of storytellers you trust, whose voices you see as legitimate, and what kind of stereotypical twists you expect from a tale like this. It’s delightful and disturbing by turns, and almost impossible to put down once you’ve started.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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