Nineteen-year-old Aoileann, principal teller of this extraordinary tale in which horror and motherhood entwine, lives with her iron-willed paternal grandmother and the wreck of her bed-bound mother on the grey, windswept island of her birth, a place she has never left. Almost the first thing we learn of their home is that its windows have been filled in with shards of stone, since the nameless catastrophe of which they are all survivors: none must see the grim drama that plays out inside.
Although Aoileann’s grandmother, known only as Móraí (Gaelic for grandma), is herself an islander, it quickly becomes clear that on this place of outcasts – with its brutal rituals, its cruelty and its impenetrable dialect – theirs is a pariah household. The islanders jeer and stare, and Aoileann has had “bad times” when they’ve caught her alone on the beach: the locals spit after the most casual contact, to avoid contamination. Even Dada, Aoileann’s father, perhaps incapacitated by guilt at the part he may have played in his wife’s degeneration, has retreated to the mainland. The lives of his mother and child revolve around keeping what Aoileann calls “the bed-thing” alive and presentable for his occasional visits.
As we enter into the monotonous detail of their existence, girl and grandmother dealing with the physical needs of Aoileann’s mother and bound together by their duty of what passes for care, a horrifying picture emerges. This dependant, who must be spoon-fed and hoisted to the toilet, moves when they aren’t watching; her fingers are worn to knuckle-stubs by her efforts to scratch signs into the floorboards of her room. And, most dreadful of all, it is immediately clear that her carers hate her. As Aoileann performs the most intimate acts of cleaning and feeding and turning her mother against bedsores, her internal monologue is an incantation of insults and resentments and curses, the punishments she would like to inflict.
All Aoileann’s questions – “What happened after I happened? Is she sick? Will she get better? Who did this to her?” – go unanswered by a father and grandmother who shy away from Aoileann as if she were unclean, and it becomes clear that the terrible need to know, and to reclaim her mother by one means or another, is what drives both Aoileann’s hatred and her narrative. Then another outsider appears on the island: young artist Rachel, with her newborn son. Here is a mother “large and generous, spilling and quivering”, as strong and open as the islanders are disfigured by superstition. And as Aoileann is drawn to Rachel by the ferocity of her need, the throb of violence that is the novel’s drumbeat becomes deafening.
A direct descendant of the folk horror tradition, melded with body horror’s graphic intensity, Where I End is not a novel to prop against the pickle jar while eating your lunch. While it does, inevitably, sometimes feel over-ripe with disgust, its cumulative effect is powerful – and it is also genuinely frightening. The evocation of the frightful islanders with their “bloodless, spidery hands”, their eyes “watery boreholes”, is extraordinarily effective, done through hints and prohibitions: “Never look inside the mouth.” The set pieces, such as Rachel’s description of the violence of birth, or Aoileann’s of the bodies of the drowned, are tremendous; and the transition from pity to fear, as we warily circle Aoileann’s brutalised psyche, is brilliantly done.
Aoileann contains distinct echoes of “Merricat” Blackwood, the proud, ruthless, quick-witted narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The terrain may be wilder than Jackson’s and Aoileann’s damage more florid, but the books share a keen and transparent intelligence. Where Jackson is deadpan and bloodless – her claustrophobia bone-dry, her restraint fearful – White embraces a visceral revulsion at what lies beneath the skin and behind the eyes, in a language pulsing with slippery energy. But what the writers have in common is an uncanny ability to tune in to the frequency of madness without allowing it to drown out subtlety.