The House of Ashes

Written by Stuart Neville
Review by Peggy Kurkowski

Some secrets refuse to stay buried for a couple in Northern Ireland when a mysterious old woman shatters the fragility of their new home in The House of Ashes.

Sara and Damien Keane are new owners of a 120-year-old farmhouse called The Ashes, named for the cluster of trees it hides behind. Recently moved from England to escape her nervous breakdown and get a fresh start, Sara is interrupted one day by a bloodied old woman pounding on her door, shrieking “what are you doing in my house?!” Sara soon realizes her controlling and domineering husband has hidden the house’s grim past from her, one that is intimately linked with the old woman, Mary. So begin dually told tales in alternating chapters of Mary’s past and Sara’s present, as the cruel and macabre history of the house and its previous occupants unfolds. Neville’s unflinching prose gives authentic voice to Mary’s nightmarish imprisonment in the house a half century earlier, mirroring Sara’s own sense of powerlessness in her marriage. As Sara delves deeper into the dark heart of the past, she slowly reassembles the shattered pieces of herself to confront her abuser and help Mary to share her story with the world.

The House of Ashes is a well-executed thriller that grips the reader throughout, though the trope of the passive, frightened woman quaking beneath the male gaze grates after a time. Neville furnishes a denouement, however, that packs a feminist punch.