The House of War and Witness
by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey
House of War and Witness was suspenseful in a unique way: from the outset, I could predict how the story would end, who would live and who would die, yet even so, I found myself thoroughly engrossed, the plot made no less suspenseful by an outcome foreseen.(show spoiler)
While the setting is very different, thematically, it reminded me strongly of Steel Seraglio: like Seraglio, it is a story about storytelling, the greater plot fueled by smaller tales.
The story starts gently enough. A regiment of Austrian soldiers is sent to a rural village on the border of Austria, ostensibly to shore up support for Archduchess Maria Theresa, but also to ensure that the village does not change its allegiances. Another regiment had been posted to the village, but had disappeared, and the frail and rather ineffective Lieutenant Klaes is tasked with discovering unearthing the secrets that the village is concealing. Drozde, a camp follower and mistress of the regiment's quartermaster, Sergeant Molebacher, sets out to make the old mansion that the regiment will use as a home base livable. Although Drozde is used to ghosts--she has seen them all her life-- she is shocked by the number and vividness of the spirits inhabiting the old house. As the ghosts begin to share their stories with her, tensions between the regiment and the village begin to mount, and the true natures of the characters are revealed.
The larger plot naturally wraps itself around the stories of the town, for Drozde's very business is stories. While she receives protection and legitimacy by selling her body, most of her earnings come from the daring and raunchy puppet shows she puts on for the regiment. As she thinks:
"Of all the stories she told, the most important was the story that her stories were indispensable. Without that, she was just a grown woman who'd never put away her dolls."
Chapters told by ghosts and townsfolk intersperse sections told from the perspectives of Drozde and Klaes, and these tales both break up and propel the main plot. Not all of the storytellers are good people; as one puts it:
"This is a story about choices, and I'll never know whether the choices that were made were right or wrong."
All of the stories are vivid and varied, ranging widely over time and tone, yet many are unified by a common theme: that of violence stemming from possessiveness and control. The repetition of choking fear, of victimization, of violence against women, can make for a difficult narrative, and I was often frustrated by the obtuseness of the characters and their inability to realize the dire and damaging nature of their situations.(show spoiler)
For me, the true stifling agony of the book was the invasive sense of powerlessness shared by the protagonists. As one character thinks,
"That was life, in small [...] you spent it grubbing desperately for the physical things that would prolong it. For food mainly, and then if you were lucky enough to be fed, for shelter. And all the time in between you spent dreaming of places you couldn't go and things you could never have. You used it up trying to fit yourself into the spaces that would work, instead of unfolding yourself into the space that was yours and then seeing where that took you."
Even though many of story's scenes are comic, the other overarching themes are often dark and intense. Apart from the choking aspects of possessiveness and powerlessness, it deals with the corruption of authority, the construction of an enemy, and the definition of duty. Yet even here, the characters' lack of agency reverberates. Within the hierarchical structure of the military, there are stringent limits to what one man--or woman-- can achieve. As one character tries to explain to another who seeks to choose "the path that leads to the least bloodshed":
"That's not in your power to choose."
Yet despite poignancy and tragedy, the story is ultimately uplifting: their agency may be limited, but indirectly, they have the power to change the world. Even when all choices appear to be blocked, the characters find a way to move the world around them instead. The House of War and Witness is a story that glories in the power of stories, and I was utterly captivated.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Diamond Book Distributors, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~