Rawblood: bleaker than Dartmoor

Book cover: Rawblood - Catriona ward (tree branches against a grey sky)Iris Villarca is an only child, kept isolated from friends and servants. Her father wishes only to protect her, but she dreams of stories where headstrong daughters seize their freedom. There is no freedom for a Villarca. Villarcas sicken if they leave Rawblood. Villarcas die young. And so do those they love.

It’s clear from the start that Rawblood will be all atmosphere and foreboding:

This is how I come to kill my father. It begins like this.

I’m eleven.

The story is split across narrators and generations: the dominant narrative is that of Iris, last of the Villarca line, and her lonely childhood at the remote ancestral seat on Dartmoor. I liked her from the start – headstrong, clever, given to reading and flights of imagination. She pushes against the boundaries her father sets and claims a friend in young Tom Gilmore from the nearby farm. It’s clear to everyone but her and Tom that there’s bad blood between the Gilmores and the Villarcas, but the children pay it no heed.

Their burgeoning friendship – told in fragmentary sentences and childish squabbles – is cross-cut with the Victorian diary of one Charles Danforth, a doctor come to Rawblood to visit his friend Alonso. Hats off to Catriona Ward for capturing not only different personalities but different periods in her prose – Danforth is entirely distinct from Iris, to the extent that I was gritting my teeth at his self-absorbed, self-deceiving, prissy point of view.

Where Iris simply doesn’t notice hints of past misdeeds, Danforth coyly alludes to past misdemeanours – but as the format is his diary, there’s no reason for him to detail them to himself. It’s both laudable (why should he dwell on things he clearly regrets) and an expert bit of teasing. He also gets the most traditionally Gothic narrative, with all the tropes rolled out – sullen servants, hostile locals, faces in windows, odd smells, confining weather. It’s done with great flair; there’s a reason these tropes endure and it’s because when used well – as they are here – they’re astoundingly creepy, but I found myself longing for some original elements.

The first half of the novel cuts back and forth between these two points of view until each reaches its inevitable climax (about which I’ll say no more); the second half of the novel cuts to previous generations, telling the tales of Iris’s mother and grandmother before jumping forward to the end of WWI to rejoin Iris and Tom in their deeply traumatised ‘present’.

Along the way, various introduced mysteries are neatly unwrapped, satisfying even this picky reader with the deft storytelling. Catriona Ward manages to keep pushing the actions and consequences of each generation to the very end before everything is finally laid bare – I was honestly unsure until the final page whether this would be devastating or cathartic in its final denouement.

Rawblood is an excellent Hallowe’en read, enthusiastically embracing Gothic tropes to serve up a literary ghost story. I’ll happily recommend it, although if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy it. I hated Charles Danforth (my reading notes are peppered with scornful remarks about his attitudes and dubious ethical gymnastics); I found Mary Hopewell’s storyline tedious and over-long; and knowing Meg Danforth even more of a tease than her brother.

If I had approached it as 4 or 5 inter-linked ghost stories, I think I would have enjoyed it more – but because I latched on to Iris early, I was more frustrated than intrigued by the other (often protracted) narratives, which felt like distractions and didn’t – for my money – increase the kick in the teeth delivered by the final act.

Perhaps I could have enjoyed Rawblood more if I were in a different frame of mind. I’m a bit overwhelmed by the world at present, and seeking more comfort from my reading material than can be found in this dark tale. It is an undeniably beautiful bit of craft, and worth a look for the atmospheric descriptions of Dartmoor and the flamboyant Gothic execution. Just set your expectations for a slow, bleak, fractured meander, and don’t get too attached.


Rawblood recently won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel.