My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of the reviews on the cover of Heap House, says something to the effect of it's weird, spectacularly so and I couldn't agree more. This book is what would happen if Charles Dickens & Lemony Snicket had a baby and let the heir of Edward Gorey illustrate it. It's also very hard to review without ruining the surprises.
It's an alternative London, late 1800s and most of the narrative alternates between Clod Iremonger and Lucy Pennant, with a few other points of view spattered about. Clod is an Iremonger born and raised in the titular Heap House which is outside of London amidst these enormous trash heaps. The Iremongers are wealthy beyond reason rising from mere rag pickers, to the kings and queens of garbage disposal and finally buying up all the debts in London. Their house is actually torn from other abandoned places and cobbled back together out on the heaps, huge, moving mounds of trash that seem almost alive.
Clod is weird even among the Iremongers and they're all pretty weird. Every Iremonger has a birth object, something given to them the moment they are born and they must keep with them at all times. Without their birth object they will be in serious trouble. That's where the story opens, one of the aunts has lost her birth object, a brass door handle, and the whole of the house, all the cousins, aunts and uncles are searching for it. Clod has an advantage. He can hear the objects and they only say one thing: a person's name. His own object, a bath plug, is James Henry Hayward.
However, this ability sets him apart and he was already an outsider as his mother died giving birth to him and his father died of a broken heart soon after. His grandmother in particular has never forgiven him for this. Most of his cousins don't even believe he can hear the objects and that goes for the adults in his life. Clod is particularly unwanted by many though Uncle Alivir, the doctor, seems to be on his side along with another outsider, a cousin Tummis who collects and speaks with animals and bugs, particularly birds. Tummis is also weird because he's in love with his cousin Ormily.
In this family, love matches don't really happen. At sixteen they simply marry whichever cousin has been chosen for them. Both Tummis and Clod are still in short pants waiting to be trousered (i.e. become an adult) and to marry soon after. Clod isn't in that much of a hurry to marry his rather homely match, Pinalippy. Worse, there's cousin Moorcus, the family golden boy and bully who possesses the only birth object Clod can't hear.
Lucy is discovered in an orphanage and is told she's a distant halfblooded Iremonger cousin (i.e. one parent was Iremonger and the other a non-Iremonger). She's 'rescued' from there and a life of being married to the heaps (a dangerous short lived job managing the garbage piles which are known to call people into their depths and kill them). She's brought to Heap House to be the fire grate tender in the Uphouse (upstairs/downstairs sort of British serving person's life). It's an enviable job. She is stripped of her name and she like all servants except the head cooks, the lock mistress and the Butler/head woman is now simply 'Iremonger.'
To her confusion and consternation, Lucy finds that most of the other serving Iremongers can't even remember their own name and at dinnertime, they all greedily eat up this grey globby stuff like it's ambrosia which she refuses to touch. Once she's forced to, even she has trouble holding onto her name and probably wouldn't have if she hadn't done the one thing she's forbidden to do: talk to an Uphouse Iremonger: Clod.
As they become closer, things start going really awry in Heap House. The birth objects start saying more than just their name and a Gathering is happening (which seems to be a magically alive collection of crap) and the story just gets weirder from there but I can't really review it much without ruining it.
It is a melancholic tale of strangeness. Things like the birth objects do get explained. Clod and Lucy (Clod more so for my tastes) are fascinating and likeable characters. I will say if you like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, you'll probably like this and if you didn't, this probably isn't the story for you. It's one of those that I feel like I can say you'll either really like it or hate it. I don't see much of an in between.
The one thing I didn't really like was the ending but I'm not much on endings that are nothing more than 'you have to get book two to see how it turns out.'
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