"Love is not all," warned the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. "It is not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain." She was right, of course, but if there were ever any advice destined to fall on stubbornly deaf ears, this is it. Love is not all, but it always feels like it is, whether you're happily partnered or bereft.
That's also why it's a notoriously difficult subject for writers, though god knows it hasn't stopped them from trying, with very mixed results. It's rare that somebody gets it right, which is why Matt Bell's debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is so remarkable. It's one of the most thoughtful recent works of fiction on a subject that defeats many writers before they pick up their pens.
More a book-length fairy tale than a conventional novel, Bell's book follows an unnamed husband and wife who have left their home country to start a new life in the untamed wilderness. The husband builds a house and gathers food; his wife creates objects — bowls, clothing, even a new moon — through song.
They also decide to start a family. "What world we found was not enough for her, not enough for me, not without the children we desired, that I desired and that she desired for me." Their first several attempts are disastrous, resulting in mangled, stillborn fetuses, one of which the husband impulsively, inexplicably, eats. While the couple eventually has a baby, it's not what the husband bargained for; he finds himself driven to near insanity by the jealous fetus, which now lives inside of him. His wife and their son withdraw, disappearing into a house that magically expands into a kind of labyrinth. Alone, the husband tries to come to terms with his decisions, as well as with the mysterious bear and the squid-like creature that live near their house.
It's hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious. His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable. While he's been compared to authors like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, his style is very much his own, lacking any obvious antecedent. In the House contains passages far scarier than most mainstream horror novels, but Bell writes with a warmth, a humanity that renders the scenes gut-wrenching on an emotional level. Characters in fairy tales are often stand-ins for ideas, props used to illustrate a moral. Bell does a superb job of avoiding this trap, though; he writes about the family with both a clear sense of empathy and an expert novelist's unblinking eye.
Bell's novel isn't just a joy to read, it's also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years. In one scene, the husband remembers his father lecturing him, "telling me the purpose of a marriage was the improvement of a man and a woman, each meant to make the other better." The father continues, "It is enough. ... You cannot expect to make the world better, not by any love." It's apparent Bell disagrees; the novel is a monument to the uniqueness of every relationship, the possibility that love itself can make the world better, though of course it's never easy.