I had a somewhat alarming experience when reading “The Children’s Home” where I felt increasingly anxious as the story progresses. It’s a novel that accumulates a tremendous power in its surreal tone over time when reading it. I felt a shift in perspective as I became immersed in the dark fictional world Charles Lambert created in the story and this carried on into how I see the world around me. It inspires that special kind of disquiet where you start to question everything around you and these are uncomfortable questions that you aren’t sure you want answered.
The novel focuses on Morgan Fletcher who has barely ever ventured out from living in a palatial estate he’s inherited from his family. Morgan exists in virtual solitude except for a group of unseen servants who he has virtually no contact with because of his horrendous facial disfigurements which he’s ashamed of. He isn’t entirely sure where his family’s wealth came from, but he’s content to spend his days cataloguing the huge array of books stored in the property. Even though he claims not to read them his conception of himself is highly literary: “He imagined himself the dirty secret at the heart of the world, the overlooked madwoman raving in the attic of a house that occupied everything there was, each brick and pane and board, the wondering prince in the hair-filled mask of iron he had dreamt of as a boy.” In this way he comes to represent a sort of everyman, but one who is entirely estranged from a mysterious world which functions independently around him.
A new servant arrives named Engel who cooks for Morgan, but she eventually also takes on the role of child-minder as soon as young children start arriving at the house from unknown sources. Morgan takes them all in gladly because “It has never been a house that welcomed love… Not until now.” There are soon so many children he isn’t even certain how many there are. Their presence is welcome at first, but the intelligent children seem to have a mysterious purpose of their own and they lead Morgan into facing uncomfortable problems about this world that’s been consumed by war and greed. Together with Doctor Crane who first comes to treat a sick child and eventually lives at the house semi-permanently, Morgan is shown the secrets which dwell within his own house and the sinister factory managed by his domineering estranged sister.
This is an enigmatic novel imbued with haunting imagery that accumulates meaning over the course of the story. For instance, in an attic room there is a model of a pregnant woman in a box who is strangely life-like and was presumably used as a tool for medical research. She comes to represent issues of fertility, beauty and the future of civilization. This unnerving figure also makes an alarming counterpart to Morgan’s own vain and horrifically tyrannical mother who was plagued by a debilitating illness.
It’s clever how the book embeds you so firmly in Morgan’s perspective of the world where he feels like a guilty participant, but also he’s utterly confused by what’s really happening and impotent to make any substantial change for the better. Isn’t this how most of us feel in the world? If we’re living in a middle class first-world society we’re bombarded by news stories of far-off tragedies and feel like we’re inextricably a part of damaging systems in which we benefit by receiving privilege and comfort. There is a guilt attached to this and a nibbling unconscious knowledge that we resist. It’s described of Morgan how “He’d never wanted to know, which is also a sort of knowing.” Morgan remarks to an eerily sophisticated boy named David how his family’s wealth came from dealing in power. He means in energy like oil and electricity, but it also takes on the meaning of power as influence and domination over society. Charles Lambert seems to be making sly critiques of capitalism in a subtly artistic way where lives are being crushed in a consumer system. There are also small nods to Marxism such as the female servant named Engel.
Reading this book I was reminded strongly of Paraic O’Donnell’s recent novel “The Maker of Swans” because of similarities in its setting, dreamlike logic and linguistic inventiveness. The experience of reading “The Children’s Home” is like watching a David Lynch film or staring at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Everything is seductively peaceful but has a sinister edge so that when you investigate it closely you see the unfathomable pain that was always there in plain view. In truth, Charles Lambert’s novel is entirely original and I’m just drawing upon references to other art works to give a sense of the journey you’re in for. This is highly compelling and invigorating writing.