The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
I was given a copy of The Children's Home by the publisher via NetGalley, in return for an unbiased review.
The Children's Home is a difficult novel to categorise. It begins with the mysterious arrival of two children at the vast mansion of Morgan Fletcher, a wealthy, disfigured recluse. How or why they've appeared is a mystery, but they're soon followed by more of their kind. Nonetheless Morgan, who appears to be an innately kind and sensitive man, is pleased to give the children a home, where they are looked after by his housekeeper Engel and attended when ill by a local doctor, Dr Crane, who effectively becomes Morgan's only friend. Who are the children? Why are they so adept at being seen and not heard at exactly the right times? Could their secret be hidden among the thousands of books and curiosities collected by Morgan's late grandfather, the creator of the Fletcher fortune?
This novel has the atmosphere of a quietly unsettling dream: the sort of dream where everything is just a little too 'off' to feel normal and where all that happens has a strange uncertainty to it. It's unclear where or when the story takes place. There are cars and factories but seemingly no computers; Morgan himself lives on a huge gated estate and alludes to his inherited wealth, but seems barely aware of any world beyond the boundaries of his own land. There are signs that the government is some sort of fascist regime, possibly only recently installed after a war or a military coup, but Morgan himself seems oblivious to anything that goes on in the outside world - including, strangely, what his family business actually does or how it continues to make money. When this latter question is finally answered (at least in part) we're left to wonder if Morgan's melancholic innocence is in fact a severe case of denial.
There are elements of magical realism to The Children's Home, and it also has echoes of allegory, satire and even fairy-tale. The world Morgan inhabits is a dystopia of sorts, and it's not always clear what is real and what might be of Morgan's own invention: he is, it's made clear, disturbed by an early life that is almost gothic in its misery and further traumatised by own grotesque appearance, after which he has effectively been in a sort of voluntary solitary confinement for many years. Charles Lambert does an excellent job of creating an unsettling atmosphere which begins subtly and then builds to an outright disturbing climax.
The Children's Home is essentially a symbolic novel, and the reader is very much left to make their own sense of what its various elements might mean. If you're the sort of reader who likes a neatly resolved plot and clear meaning rather than a chance to hypothesise your own conclusions, this is probably not the book for you.
For my own part I found much to enjoy about The Children's Home and have plenty of my own ideas about who the children were and why they appeared at Morgan's house; however, I did also find the story rather repetitive at times, and by necessity Morgan is also the only really three-dimensional character with the others existing primarily to highlight elements of him. This isn't inappropriate to this novel, but it does mean the whole book feels rather like reading an extended fable, and ultimately I found myself disengaging from it as a result.