A modern Gothic mystery coloured with tenderness
Fiction: The Hoarder, Jess Kidd, Canongate, paperback, 346 pages, €15.60
As her debut novel, Himself, already proved, Jess Kidd knows her way around an inky-black and atmospheric tale. The London-Irish writer certainly wasn't afraid to stitch in plenty of the macabre too, opening her debut novel with a shocking scene of a teenage mother battered to death in front of her infant son. With the benefit that being a sort-of outsider brings (she was born in west London, though her family are from Mayo), Kidd ably brought 1970s Mulderrig, an imaginary village on the west coast of Ireland, leaping from the page.
In her second, The Hoarder, her admirable grasp on the Irish argot is also writ large. We open on no less a moment of intrigue, too: Cathal Flood is an elderly Irishman living more than comfortably alone, and in his own filth. His wife Mary died some years back, and relations with his son Gabriel are strained. Living in a very grand house that has seen better days, the belligerent Flood has been a pathological hoarder for some time. Woe betide the care worker who even thinks to address the mountains of clutter, the dozens of slumbering cats, the rat droppings and the greasy collections of plastic bags. He won't be moved to a residential care facility, or at least "not while there's a hole in (his) arse". Other carers and dogsbodies have just about lived to tell the tale of their encounters; even the most formidable of them all, senior care worker Sam Hebden, came a cropper.
The latest comer is Maud Drennan: young, Irish, wry, and regarding Cathal Flood less as a terrifying ogre and more as an inconvenience. He is prone to putting curses on her, wishing on her at one point "a barren womb, eating without shitting, sodomy by all of hell's demons (simultaneously and one after each other), fierce constrictions of the throat, a relentless smouldering of the groin and an eternity on help with (her) eyes on fire".
In spite of his hostility, she adapts quickly to the house (breathing through her mouth, naturally), and a kinship of sorts starts to form. Maud is by no means an ordinary carer. A psychic of sorts, she has regular conversations with various ghostly Catholic saints. A photo unearthed in the toppling masses of rubbish hints at intriguing secrets hidden within Cathal's house. A girl's face has been warped with the help of a stubbed-out cigarette; further adding to the mystery, Gabriel - the young boy in the old photo - is none the wiser as to who she is. To help her unearth the mysteries in Cathal's life, Maud enlists her delightful landlady Renata, a transgender woman who is by turns agoraphobic, glamorous and eccentric. And once Maud starts looking, secret after secret tumbles forth; not just from Cathal's past, but within her own family, too. Far from being an observant outsider, it becomes clear that Maud has more than her own share of troubles. Hoarders are loathe to relinquish their possessions at the best of times, and for reasons that eventually become clear, Cathal is doubly reluctant to let Maud sweep away the house's debris.
At first, Kidd's contemporaneous tale, with the affable Maud steering the narration, reads like a zesty character study. The sparring between her and the equally likeable Cathal, spattered with salty insults and banter, is a thing to behold; a witty, humorous and light look at an unlikely friendship. Yet in drip-feeding jigsaw pieces to the reader and shifting gears throughout, Kidd's book shape-shifts into a much creepier and tightly wound Gothic mystery.
Kidd has mastered a tale that is equal parts light and shade - a clever story that shifts from ticklish and bawdy to tenderness and full-blown pathos. Even the cantankerous and unpredictable Cathal is multifaceted and very, very human, surprising the reader with a range of emotions.
It's enough to keep any reader right on course, but Kidd's delicious writing is what really gives The Hoarder its heft. With Kidd deploying plumes of pungent prose regularly, Maud and Cathal's worlds are so vivid that it's almost possible to smell the decay of Bridlemere, the musty manor, rising up from the page.
At just two books in, Kidd's future as a singular literary voice is already assured. Here, she has delivered a modern-day spin on an old trope: the cantankerous owner of a huge haunted house. But it's the tenderness, and the humanity, with which she has created her characters that really sink under the skin.