‘Rawblood’ was recommended to me by a number of different people as a great horror story; and indeed shortly afterwards it won the British Fantasy Award best horror novel for 2016. I don’t want to knock either the horror genre, which I enjoy, or this novel’s place in it; however, in this instance I do feel that ‘Rawblood’ offers a lot more than that description allows. It does have genuinely creepy, frightening moments as we become party to various documents from the late 19th century up until just after the Great War, but the chief horror is that of grief rather than scares.
It is also an embarrassment of riches as a beautiful piece of writing; indeed, I think it’s the most beautiful book I’ve read all year, and I’ve read some good ones. From the opening chapter in which two children rescue a foal deep in the Devon countryside to the astonishing, moving climax, it is one of those books you want to read aloud simply to savour the poetry of it. I do not know how Catriona Ward has managed to evoke a time and place neither of us were alive to experience, but it is so convincing, so gripping and so moving I actually felt I was there.
It’s complex too, and takes its time. One of my favourite sequences involved two English ladies in Italy, down on their luck and with only good manners to recommend them. Their politeness and consideration is so far from the current level of, say, political debate as to be of another world entirely and yet within it, still, there is that same darkness, returning again and again like the vengeful, lethal ghost that haunts the tormented central family.
The only comparable recent novel to ‘Rawblood’ is ‘Station Eleven’, which is notionally science fiction, but mainly about family relationships across different eras defined by an exceptional event – in that case the world’s population being wiped out by a virus. There, too, horror plays its part but as a means of opening up and exploring characters remarkable more for the intensity of their love than for any uncanny gift, or curse.
Characters in ‘Rawblood’ are constantly on the point of being within or without; never quite outsiders and never quite in either, as if on the cusp of life and death, acceptance or rejection. The apparently wealthy family who live in the Rawblood mansion suffer a poverty of loneliness; the farmer’s boy who is retained to look after the horses seems wealthier simply by being able to have relationships with other people, although tragically the one he really wants is the daughter of the big house, who is forbidden to love, let alone marry… And is the stern father who rules Rawblood the same man whose forbidden love for his (male) friend has led them both to the mouth of madness? Characters hinted at or referred to in passing begin to close in on the central story. For example, the male lover’s younger sister, mentioned at first in passing as uncontrollable, gradually moves centre stage in a believable sequence of events that nonetheless one wishes for her sake had never happened. Ridiculous though that sentiment is, it illustrates how much one comes to care for the characters in this extraordinary novel.