By Jess Kidd
Out now from Canongate, £14.99 hardcover
Jess Kidd’s debut, Himself (which I reviewed here), was the welcome arrival of a distinctive voice in literary fiction, one lilting with Irish cadences, unafraid to blur the line between reality and the supernatural, shot through with black humour, and blessed with a gift for memorable descriptions.
The Hoarder shares many themes and elements with Himself, but it’s altogether more antic, as if Kidd decided to cut the brake lines. It is not that the story feels out of her control, and it certainly addresses serious themes, but there’s a giddy, accelerating playfulness tumbling through this tale. Despite the novel’s clear and present dangers, I regularly laughed out loud. It reminded me of being at the beach, buffeted by a surprisingly strong wave: suddenly you’re flying—whee!—but there’s no telling where your feet will land, or whether it’ll be safe there.
Like Himself, The Hoarder abounds with lavish descriptions of houses and their curiosities; there are family secrets aplenty, and this time, not one but three missing women representing different ages—child, teenager and adult. Kidd plays with the complexities of identity—mistaken, self-invented, and misplaced. She probes the psychology of guilt, worrying the knot where it’s tangled up with grief. She gives us a plentiful number of eccentrics, ghosts, and eccentric ghosts.
This is Maud Drennan’s story, told from her perspective. She’s a self-contained, constrained woman “slaloming towards 40.” She works as a carer through a dodgy London agency that’s sent her to look after elderly widower Cathal Flood, an artist who is estranged from his only son. He lives in a mansion called Bridlemere, which is filled with mysteries. The most imperative of these is why won’t he throw anything out? The aptly named Flood is the hoarder of the title, barricaded in a cluttered portion of his four-story home, behind a wall of National Geographic magazines that only sometimes part to allow access to the rest of the rooms.
Bridlemere seemed to me to expand and shrink like a living thing. It sits in a garden big enough to contain a disused well, a decaying camper van, and numerous abandoned relics. (While nowhere near as tricksy as the house in Little, Big, the property has an air of M C Escher about it.)
ASIDE: At one point, with regular invitations for her to step outside, the phrase “Come into the garden, Maud” popped into my head. Given Kidd’s dry humour, I’m not sure whether to check in with Tennyson—or Noel Coward.
Maud has a massive job ahead of her, disposing of Flood’s crap: “piles of mildewing curtains, getting caught in cables, hooked on hat stands and assaulted by rutting ironing boards. I flounder over records, books, stained blankets, greasy collections of plastic bags, garden forks, antique mangles . . . . And cats, cats, cats.”
She also has to deflect his crap. He is a cantankerous mix of poetry and profanity, and prone to lashing out physically. Told he attacked his last carer with a hurling stick, Maud remains alert, sizing up anything that might serve as a self-defence weapon, but answering every insult with sardonic humour and immutable calm (at least on the outside). Their battle of nerves is an even match.
Maud digs her way through Flood’s relics like an archaeologist, insofar as the latter are storytellers of history. When mysterious, defaced photographs appear as if by magic, she decides they’re clues to a murder-and-missing-person crime which the dead have recruited her to solve. Certain that volatile Cathal Flood murdered his wife, she sets out to find evidence. She’s sure it’s somehow linked to a girl who was shut up in an institution, and whose disappearance the late Mrs Flood carefully monitored through saved newspaper clippings.
Instead of providing Maude with a steadying, reasonable friend urging caution, Kidd gives her an agoraphobic landlady, Renata—née Lemuel Sewell. She is a treat, but agoraphobics live quiet lives, so she’s right up for this adventure by proxy.
Renata’s not gone the full Anna Madrigal, but lives as a woman, to her conservative sister’s dismay. Nevertheless Lillian turns up twice a week to clean and tut at her sibling. They fight and make up, fight and make up. In this novel all about family dynamics, their antagonistic loyalty makes an interesting contrast with far worse relationships.
Maud spends more time at Renata’s than in her own flat, attended by a host of spectral saints visible to her eyes only. They accompany her everywhere, lolling about on furniture, making faces, re-arranging their draperies, commenting on the action, and suggesting, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not, what Maud should do next. Is she psychic, or are these colourful characters creatures of her imagination? Whatever the answer, and you can draw your own conclusions, they are amusing company.
Despite Kidd’s use of close third person narration, readers quickly realise that Maud’s not the most reliable narrator, hampered by a tendency to get the wrong end of the stick and hang on for dear life. Fixated on Cathal Flood’s perfidy, desperate to implicate him in his wife’s death, and certain that only she can locate the missing girl, Maud fails to spot danger presenting itself elsewhere.
She’s already a carer, why is she so desperate to rescue someone else? The answer’s in her past. Maud had an older sister, Dierdre, who disappeared when she was a teenager and Maud just seven. Her investigation into the death and disappearance of a mother and a child in the present, sends her mind spinning back, dredging up memories—each one subtly altered—of the day of Dierdre’s disappearance, and the ensuing police inquiry.
Maud lost not only her sister that day, but also her mother, who turned against her youngest child. Yet even when her most regular spectral companion, St Dymphna (“family harmony, inadvertent runaways”), offers another, more plausible scenario for what happened, Maud will not—or cannot—abandon her guilt and shame. She knows she made her sister disappear. What a heavy, unnecessary burden for a child to carry, much less carry well into adulthood.
The Hoarder is almost as full of incident as Flood’s home is full of things. It’s a tale told in layers, while the seemingly separate zones off Maud’s life echo one another, as do the past and present. Beautifully written, hilariously funny, this is another winning tale from a talented new voice.