A House Divided

On March 12th, we publish the mass market paperback edition of The House of War and Witness, the haunting second novel by  Linda Carey, Louise Carey and M.R. Carey (author, as we’re sure you all know, of the wonderful The Girl With all the Gifts).

It’s an extraordinary novel by three extraordinary writers. As I said on this very blog when we revealed the cover to the trade paperback, it is ‘that rarest and most precious of beasts – a truly original fantasy novel. You will find no quests here. You will find no heroes. Nor will you find secret heirs to the throne/magical powers/enchanted blades or jewelry (delete as appropriate).’  The House of War and Witness is a mystery, a ghost story, a love story, a revenge story – even a [redacted – you’ll just have to read it and find out what else it is!].  And while the narrative takes place across many characters’ stories, the overall tone of the novel is as coherent and focused as any novel sprung from a single imagination. How, you might ask, is such a thing possible with three creative forces involved. Linda Carey tells us:

Our family has always been a bit of a mish-mash. My ancestors are from the parts of the world that were going to be Poland and the Ukraine; Mike’s are from Ireland via Liverpool. He’s a devout atheist, brought up in a permanent family ruckus which started when his Protestant-raised mum ran off with a Catholic boy. Me, I’ve always lived in a family ruckus, because we’re Jewish and that’s the way we do things. And our kids have inherited – seemingly unscathed – bits of all our various traditions and hang-ups.

So when three of us – parents and daughter – got it into our heads to write a book together, it was probably inevitable that we’d go for a mash-up. Our first book, The City of Silk and Steel, was a mix of Arabian Nights and failed utopia, set in a nebulous distant past and – courtesy of one character who sees the future – with a toe in the present day. Our second, The House of War and Witness, is a rather different animal. This one ranges over time too, and like the first, it’s held together by stories, as a houseful of ghosts retell their histories. But the fantasy world here is much closer to the real one. The main action takes place in the 1740s, around an army camp stationed in an out-of the way village. And the setting is Silesia: a once-real place that no longer exists.

Like the middle-European countries where my grandparents grew up, Silesia has been endlessly reinvented, carved up and finally swallowed by the surrounding powers.  But Silesia was never even a country in its own right: at the time of our story it’s a small province being squabbled over by its much bigger neighbours. It’s had many different names (and owners) in the past and will have as many more in the future. Our Silesian village, Narutsin, is right on the border between two warring powers, Austria-Hungary and Prussia. Great historical forces will work themselves out in its streets, as the defensive garrison of Empress Maria-Theresa takes on the invading army of King Frederick.

Trouble is, this is a nothing town, in the wilds of nowhere-in-particular. The locals are more interested in the price of eggs than in politics – until an army parks itself on their doorstep and they suddenly have to worry about survival.

Writing the story, we got interested in borders and boundaries. The borders between places, obviously, and the way that politics can suddenly erect barriers that weren’t there before. The people of Narutsin get on fairly well with their neighbours over the river: it’s only when the defending army arrives that the regular trade and occasional marriage between the towns is seen as treachery. But there are also the borders between cultures, and between social classes. Our heroine, Drozde, is at the bottom of the social heap: a camp-follower, who relies for food and shelter on whatever man is prepared to take her on, she has no power and no status. But she’s carved out a position for herself in the camp through her skill as a puppeteer and storyteller – everyone gathers to see her performances; officers and men standing together in a rare show of disregard for social boundaries.

Drozde’s puppet shows mark another border in the story too – the boundary between stories and reality. From the raw materials of everyday life, army gossip and her own imagination, she tells the soldiers stories about themselves which go on to shape their lives. Her tales can soothe tensions or exacerbate them; create enthusiasms or warn of imminent danger. And when she encounters the ghosts in the house at the edge of town, she discovers that their stories have an even greater power.

How Drozde deals with her abusive lover is one part of the story. Another is a disappearance that happened in the town the year before the army’s arrival, and the tensions caused when a hapless lieutenant is tasked with investigating the mystery. A third is the growing threat of the Prussian invaders, approaching ever closer. And interwoven with all these are the stories of the ghosts. Like we said, a mish-mash. Pulling all the different threads together was a full-time job for the three of us – as was harmonising our three different outlooks.

Writing in partnership requires a certain amount of give-and-take. Not all our stories have happy endings, but when it comes to imagining disaster, Mike, as a longstanding horror-writer is more ruthless – or perhaps just more inventive – than the rest of the family. I’m drawn to stroppy women and wanted to focus more on female characters: a tallish order in an army story. As for Louise… she’s half the age of her co-writers and twice as fearless. She had her own stories in mind, and no qualms about challenging any plot development she didn’t like. And, annoyingly, she was most often right.

So, another family ruckus in the making: lucky that we’re all used to that way of working. We got through the process without much screaming and with no breakages at all – it probably helped that script conferences tended to take place over meals. As in the book, these civilised rituals can prevent the outbreak of open hostilities. After all, when you have a whole bunch of disparate elements, the real trick is allowing them to work together.

The House of War and Witness

The House of War and Witness is available as a trade paperback, an eBook – and in mass market paperback from Thursday, 12th March.