In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

I am sure you are all tired of hearing about my reading funk, my lack of mojo, and whatever other poor clichés and terms I can throw at you.  While in said funk, I tried to break out by reading something a little out of the ordinary.  In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell fits the bill. Although it does have some elements which are in my wheelhouse (archetypes, mythology, etc.)

In the House Upon the DirtIn this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

My reaction? Hard to pin down.

Mythic, experimental, fabulist, biblical, there is a lot going on here. And of much of the novel I could appreciate it. But by the end I just wanted to find my way out and some closure. 2/3 of the way through and 300 pages seemed twice that. Some great language, descriptions and archetypal structures but didn’t work for me as a whole.

There is my 30 second review.  But in the name of fair representation (and laziness) allow me to offer some quote from other reviewers to give some perspective.

Anthony Domestico in the Boston Globe:

Bell isn’t much interested in psychological realism. His characters are primal and terrifying, driven by elemental forces — pride, anger, hunger — that they can’t really understand, let alone control. Eventually, the narrator learns that he is part of a larger, more timeless narrative: “upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, always there were two that appeared, and always the two made a single child.” The bear was once like the wife: a woman who came to this strange land in order to escape her old life. And the squid was once a whale and before that a man, always a “legion of possibility, a thousand shapes all wanting only to be made more.” Bell’s characters, that is to say, live in the world of archetype and myth, where recurrence and transformation predominate.

Michael Schaub at NPR:

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.

Carmen Machado in the LA Review of Books:

As the characters unhinge, the madness of the narrative, combined with the arch Biblical language, becomes dizzying. The most fascinating element of the plot — namely, the deficiencies of gender essentialism, and its human consequences — is buried underneath the noise of magic. The reader will want to follow the rope of the relationship through the novel, and will at times feel utterly abandoned in a world with few, if any, rules. In the end, the problem might be as simple as the text running too long — what is 300 pages could have easily been half that.


I am supportive of Bell’s career and a fan of much of his work, but I found this particular project to be messy and ultimately unsatisfying. Had I been reading the book for pleasure, I would have begun with great enthusiasm, but likely not made it to the end. That being said,  if the reader is willing to wander in the wilderness for a while, the central ideas that are so compelling early on in the text do return. The madness quiets, and the ending is interesting, though perhaps it is too little, too late.

Adam Langer in the New York Times:

Early readers of this book have compared Mr. Bell’s work to that of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but though the author delves deep into the world of fabulism, he lacks both Calvino’s playfulness and Borges’s economy; he may be striving for fairy-tale wisdom and simplicity, but he does so at a novel’s length. You keep hoping for respite from the relentless claustrophobia of its narrator’s perspective — some flash of humor, some sympathetic character, some original insight. And yet, for the most part, these remain elusive. Mr. Bell does an admirable job of attempting to engender within his readers the same sort of alienation his couple experiences, removing them from well-known surroundings, taking them to a seemingly alien land. But throughout, the territory remains stubbornly familiar; one wonders whether a more conventional and concise treatment of this topic might have been equally if not more effective.

Obviously, I am more in the Machado & Langer then the Domestico & Schaub camp but hopefully these give you a flavor and some perspective.

An interesting experiment and with some worthwhile prose but something that didn’t quite come together for me. I might check out some of Bell’s short story work to see if that is a better fit.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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