Path of Needles by Alison Littlewood, Jo Fletcher Books, 390 pages, £7.99 paperback, 2013
Have you ever met Alison Littlewood? If you’ve been lucky enough to do so, then you’ll know she is one of the sweetest, most approachable people you’re ever likely to encounter, graced with one of the cheekiest grins. Then you read one of her books, and the cognitive dissonance starts to short-circuit your neural pathways, threatening to fry the synapses irrevocably and leave you a drooling idiot. How can such a lovely young woman write stuff like THIS, you ask yourself wonderingly?
This reviewer is one man who is insanely glad that she does. Going straight from reading Seth Patrick’s Reviver, a flawed and contrived thriller that ultimately left me a little frustrated, to Alison’s latest novel, Path of Needles, the contrast between the two couldn’t be more sharply delineated. Instantly, one is aware that one is reading an assured writer, confident in her ability to tell a story that draws the reader in relentlessly from the very start, and that it will refuse to let go until the last word has been absorbed. It pulls no punches either in its telling: grief, anger, bafflement, and confusion laid bare, emotion in the raw, and just like nature red in tooth and claw.
Cate Corbin is your average community police officer, dealing with the usual, humdrum neighbourly disputes, cases of theft and other minor misdemeanours, but she does have ambitions to move beyond the parochial and into something more substantial and meaningful. Her chance comes, unexpectedly, in the form of the body of a young girl found strangely posed in woodland near her home. Looking at the scene, she realises that there’s a reason why the corpse has been positioned in the way it has: in death, the girl has taken on the attributes of a character in a fairy tale, specifically Snow White. Her colleagues, in particular the Senior Investigating Officer Heath, dismiss the theory as being fanciful and clutching at straws.
Luckily, Alice Hyland is a lecturer in literature at a nearby university and she specialises in fairy tales. She confirms that yes, the way the body of the young girl was posed when found is suggestive of the Snow White tale but, to complicate the matter, it isn’t just the familiar tale we all know but a particular variant of the tale originating in Italy. This means that the perpetrator appears to be an expert in folklore themselves, having gone to extreme lengths to stage that precise tableaux. Cate’s theory is further backed up when a second carefully-posed body is found in the same woodland: this time it’s Little Red Riding Hood who takes centre stage.
Threading through the story is a disturbing sense of reality being severely out of kilter, and this is broadcast not just through the bloody re-enactments of old tales from European folklore but also in the presence of a strange blue bird flitting around the woodland centred on Alice’s cottage. Initially, we’re not quite sure whether it’s real: when other characters start reporting seeing it then we know that it isn’t a figment of Alice’s imagination. Alice herself is almost a character from a story-book – a fay, sylphlike presence, seemingly more connected to her beloved fairy tales than to the real world. Certainly she moves through the woodlands surrounding her cottage as if she isn’t actually anchored to anything real, or that the existence she inhabits is beyond the reach of normal humans.
Cate on the other hand, becomes the intermediary between the unworldly university lecturer and the SIO, Heath. He’s the complete opposite: firmly rooted in the ‘real’ world, preferring to be dictated to by facts and evidence. Cate is somewhere in between – reacting to intuition and hunches but also looking for the evidence to back those nebulous assertions up. She’s also portrayed as a career woman, someone who would like to climb the promotional ladder and get involved in something less provincial – she refuses to set down roots, so that when the time arrives there’s nothing to hold her back. The series of bizarre occurrences upsetting the local community provide her with ample opportunity to push those boundaries.
Trotting out the cliché of this being a rollercoaster ride seems like it would be a terrible disservice to the author, but there really isn’t any other way to describe it. The set-up takes its time without being overlong in doing so, after which the plot suddenly rushes headlong into a breathless careening from revelation to revelation. There are suspects aplenty, and we are given reasons galore as to why it could be any of them. Everything seems to slot neatly into place and then, just when it all seems settled and we have our perpetrator, another layer of the story is revealed that throws all into doubt, and we are left having to tie all the disparate strands together again.
As I averred above, this is a writer at her most confident. Mixing reality with the fantastical is a difficult juggling act at the best of times: it’s easy enough introducing such elements into a real world narrative but doing so seamlessly is where the true art lies. Littlewood, I can say unhesitatingly, manages it admirably. The prose is sharp, drawing the reader in from the opening paragraphs with a practised ease that’s almost enviable in its effortlessness. I read this in two sittings – it would have been a single session had I not started reading the book late in the day. This is one of those novels that really does grab you by the lapels and then proceeds to hurl you into the maelstrom, not even allowing you to surface for air.
I referred to fairy tales a couple of reviews ago when I talked about Sarah Pinborough’s Poison. In it, I mentioned that the true origins of the fairy tale were in our deep and dark past, their content reflecting the nastiness and brutishness of life back then. Path of Needles brings that home painfully and graphically. And let me just say that the murders aren’t in the least pleasant, in their unflinching depiction or in their implications for the victims. It’s a closely observed story, weaving fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, story and academic interpretation in a clever way, and then wrapping it up in a package of police procedural. After you put the book down, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t be able to look at the fairy tale in quite the same way. I can also say these folktales have regained what the Victorian compilers took away from them. This is one book you should immediately go out and grab.