House of Spines by Michael J. Malone (Orenda Books)

One of my favourite reads of 2016 was undoubtedly A Suitable Lie by Michael J. Malone. It was the only book I’ve ever read that tackled the taboo subject of male spousal abuse. Malone handled this rarely mentioned subject with such sensitivity, with a plot that gave the reader plenty of food for thought. I wondered if the brilliance of this novel could possibly be replicated in further novels, considering that A Suitable Lie was so unusual. I was certainly looking forward to reading Malone’s next novel, House of Spines.

The title itself is intriguing, before the ‘spine’ has even been cracked. It makes perfect sense as you read through, but I won’t spoil it for any future readers. Ranald McGhie finds himself as the sole inheritor of a grand mansion on the outskirts of Glasgow, bequeathed to him by Great-Uncle Alexander Fitzpatrick, someone who, until this juncture, he has never heard of. Not without his own personal struggles, having been previously diagnosed as being bipolar, Ranald moves in to the old house that appears to have a sense of foreboding surrounding it. As Ranald finds his way round the huge house, and meets the strange housekeeper Mrs Hackett and her husband Danny, who tends to the gardens, he wonders if it is the house’s secrets or the symptoms of his bipolar condition, are causing him to feel uneasy and to imagine strange goings-on at Newton Hall. As he ingratiates himself with the locals, in particular, an insatiable woman called Liz, Ranald begins to worry that this windfall may be bad for his health.

Malone entices the reader from the get-go. With an opening prologue of a strange childhood memory from Ranald’s past, the reader instantly throws Ranald’s reliability as a narrator into question. This continues throughout, and even when you think you have it all figured out, something happens to confuse the situation. Flashbacks to the past in the memories of the locals and of Alexander’s letters serve to inform but again, they are not reliable witness statements, and Malone cleverly uses these to further cast doubt as to what is really going on.

What Malone is really good at, is taking a flawed character, usually by circumstance rather than a self-inflicted cause, and making the reader sympathise with them whilst not completely trusting their instincts. I was desperate for Ranald to take certain courses of action to try and get to the bottom of the situation, not least because, like Ranald, I was fighting between rational and irrational thought. Things that couldn’t possibly happen had no plausible explanations. The balance between rationality and irrationality fluctuates throughout which gives this book a real edge and a desire to read it from cover to cover in one sitting. Thank God for annual leave so I could indulge myself with a one sitting read of this book, as I think I’d have been going to work like a zombie because there is no way I could have put this book down. 

Malone builds up the tension throughout, using the grandeur and antiquity of the grand mansion to further add an air of oddity to the events that take place. Ranald’s lack of close personal relationships blankets any sense of clarity by his friends. His ex-wife, Martie, and his ex-neighbour and unofficial surrogate mum, provides guarded insights to Ranald’s past and his state of mind, but they cause more doubt in the readers mind than answers to what may actually be going on. The apparent close-knit community of the small village adds an atmosphere of chequered history for the Fitzpatrick family, but again, the inhabitants are quite guarded so any information gleaned from them adds a small clue rather than a proper revelation.

House of Spines is a wonderfully written novel by an author who is fast becoming a favourite of mine. After finishing this book, I was reminded of how I felt when I finished Affinity by Sarah Waters. I wanted to be able to unread it, so I could enjoy the experience of reading it again, completely unaware of the ending. Not only is this a brilliant novel, the reading experience itself is phenomenal. At once, it is mindblowing, thrilling, shocking, confusing, and gripping from end to end. I read most of Orenda Books publications, and I wonder at what point I’ll read a book by Orenda where I won’t be completely floored by it. House of Spines is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read by Orenda, and indeed by any other publisher, for a very long time. I’m truly honoured to have been given the opportunity to be part of this blog tour.