It’s a perfect beginning. “There goes Aggie again. Bang and crash and scrape all night.” With its very first lines, Lesley Glaister’s debut novel, Honour Thy Father, creates an immediate sense of unease: an impression of off-kilter wrongness. The narrator is Milly, an elderly woman sharing a crumbling house in the Fens with her older sister (in the attic above) and their younger siblings, identical twins “Ellenanesther”. The family is completed by “poor baby George. Down there, below us all.” Not a baby, of course. “He’s Agatha’s,” Milly mentions as a casual aside, and although it will be a few more pages before we learn George is kept in the basement, a deep sense of discomfort has already been established by a bare handful of economical paragraphs.
The story unfolds across two different periods of time. In the present, the sisters go about their mundane business, bickering while rain lashes the dilapidated house. Outside, the waters are rising and a nearby dyke, “Mother’s Dyke”, threatens to give way. In the past – through Milly’s reminiscences – we meet the family as young girls, along with the abusive father who may or may not have murdered their mother, found dead in the dyke. And we follow the chain of events that have led them to remain here in old age, psychologically trapped, the house a deteriorating time capsule around them. It becomes clear that the sisters don’t necessarily remember things the same. The past has become a kind of bright myth for them, one whose details they cling to and yet also carefully elide in their own ways – or keep hidden in their own personal basements.
Honour Thy Father is an exceptionally quiet and elegant Gothic horror, then, and the grim subject matter is handled with real restraint. We kind of know where all this is heading, of course – there are few surprises or shocks here – but in one sense that’s a relief. The rising floodwaters will bring secrets to the surface, while the threatened destruction of the house is a metaphor for the imminent death-throes of this desperately sad family unit … but these feel like lifelines thrown into the disturbing, disorientating sea of the book’s narrative: something for us to keep hold of as its strange pages turn. It also leaves us free to appreciate Glaister’s beautiful prose, from the dialogue between the sisters (cut through with bitterness; little details fought over) to the grimly evocative descriptions of the filth and dank decay in which they now exist. And as is often the case, there’s plenty of horror in what isn’t said. Most obviously, the sisters’ casual disregard for ‘baby’ George forces the reader to imagine for themselves just what his long existence down below has actually been like. The worst aspects of the narrative are frequently kept hidden, or only hinted at.
And yet for all the disturbing implications, the novel manages to end on a strangely peaceful note: a moment of odd contentment for the family; a calm before the storm we know is approaching. After the sadness of what has come before, and the deprivation and squalor the sisters have endured, it’s a moment you strangely want to last for them. And perhaps it even does. It’s a perfect ending.
Honour Thy Father is available in ebook from www.themurderroom.com