Book Review: Little Eve by Catriona Ward

Catriona Ward's Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel Little Eve is a heart-pounding tale of faith and family, with a devastating twist. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

I finished this darkly Gothic thriller in only two spellbound sittings—a small miracle given how my days are packed with myriad interruptions. The narrative was so absorbing, I managed to fend off almost all other demands on my time until I could finish that last, atmospheric page.

Little Eve is the somewhat derisive nickname given to Evelyn, one of the foundlings who lives on the isle of Altnaharra, connected to mainland Scotland and the village of Loyal by a gated causeway that’s exposed only at low tide. Uncle, a former soldier who returned from India some decades earlier, is the head of their household, and is attended to by Alice Seddington and Nora Marr. Together the three adults take in unwanted children and raise them on the remote island. The four children – Dinah, Abel, Evelyn herself and Elizabeth – go to school in Loyal until the shocking murder of their schoolteacher. 

An inspector from Inverness is summoned to investigate, and finds his curiosity piqued by the half-feral children of the island just as much as by the slaying, which seems pretty open and shut. Inspector Christopher Black takes an especial interest in quiet Evelyn, who claims to have the gift of second sight. He’s disbelieving, telling her:

“I do not think you a liar,” Christopher Black says gently. “I can see that you believe in your gift. Do you know what autosuggestion is? A man named Emile Coue discovered it. It is used to treat shell shock. One resolves to believe a certain thing–I am not in pain, or perhaps, I can read minds—and the body obeys.

 

“You can read people–the tiny tics and tells. The skills of a confidence trickster. That, and a wee, mental sleight of hand. I can see that it would be possible for you to believe in your own magic.”

Unsurprisingly, Evelyn refuses to believe in this or in anything else Inspector Black has to tell her, especially since his words are so completely at odds with how she’s been raised. Evelyn knows there’s something special about herself, and that she and her family are destined for great and miraculous things. 

After the scrutiny the murder brings, the islanders of Altnaharra decide to keep to themselves, communicating with the village only through notes posted on their gate. This goes on for years, until the local butcher comes to make a delivery one morning and discovers the gate unlocked and the portcullis half-raised. Assuming that the inhabitants of the rundown castle want him to bring his heavy delivery inside, he obliges… only to find scenes of carnage that have him running back to the village, calling for the authorities.

Fast-forward several years more and Dinah, the only survivor of the massacre, is still trying to come to terms with her upbringing on the island. She wants to make as normal and loving as possible a life as she can for herself and her new family, but the secrets of Altnaharra keep haunting her, urging her to write confessional letters even as she tries to suppress her memories of murderous Evelyn, the girl who destroyed everything.

For Evelyn had a taste for violence, turned inward until a schoolyard brawl showed her the power of inflicting harm on others:

I have blood under my nails and a handful of yellow hair. Shedding my own blood was one thing–this is different. No wonder Uncle keeps this power for himself. It is wonderful. I do not know how long we have been fighting. We are all deep in a world of heavy breath and colour and flesh on flesh.

Written in hypnotic prose, the story moves back and forth in time between our two viewpoint narrators, Dinah and Evelyn, as the mysteries and terrors of both Altnaharra and its lingering aftermath finally come to light. It’s a tale of trauma and loss and healing wrapped in a fascinating puzzle box of a novel, with deeply satisfying revelations and resolutions. Little wonder that it won the Shirley Jackson Award despite not being released in the United States until now. American readers of Gothic thrillers should not miss snapping this up now that it’s locally available.

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