Friday 29 March 2024

Earwig by B. Catling (Coronet) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #284, November–December 2019).

The cover of this short novel has traps for the unwary reader. Despite the artwork, the book does not feature a cat-faced girl, nor does the girl listen at walls with a glass. And do not read the cover flap, which provides a synopsis of the entire novel.

The back cover features some of the most impressive quotes I’ve ever seen on a book, from Philip Pullman (“unbounded vision”), Alan Moore (“a genius”) and Terry Gilliam (“makes me realize how little imagination I have”). That’s a lot for any book to live up to.

The one who listens at walls is in fact Herr Aalbert Scellinc. Although he is introduced in a defamiliarized way that makes him sound like a Kafkaesque insect, Earwig is just the nickname given him by a grandparent for his listening habits.

For three years he has been paid to keep a girl called Mia prisoner in an apartment in Liège. He cooks and cleans, has groceries delivered, and receives a weekly telephone call during which he must make a report. When possible he sneaks out to get drunk.

Another of his duties is to collect Mia’s saliva and freeze it in trays, to create little ice teeth which he places in her mouth. Later in the book her jaw will need adjustment for the teeth to fit, which Aalbert tries to do himself, with bloody consequences.

Some readers will find this book just too unpleasant to finish. Aalbert is prone to violence, against women, men and animals. He listens to Mia in the shower, and, while he professes to take no pleasure in doing so, he permits the child to initiate sexual contact with him.

But it is very well written, creating an unsettling atmosphere that only deepens as explicitly supernatural events occur. It feels like a lost classic from the early twentieth century, as if it has been translated from another language.

It loses intensity when the focus shifts to a victim of Aalbert’s violence, as she leaves Liège on the train, but it pays off well on all its mysteries, with a much less ambiguous ending than expected. It doesn’t quite live up to those hyperbolic quotes, but it’s good.

Recommended for some readers. Stephen Theaker ***

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