THE HOUSE OF DROUGHT by Dennis Mombauer
Stelliform Press, pb, £11.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Stelliform Press specialises in publications that highlight climate change and its implications. This novella fits well into their remit.
The setting is Sri Lanka, which is experiencing continued drought. Bernhard Zimmerkrug is a documentary maker who wants something extra to add interest to the film, which otherwise would just be reiterating the statement – ‘it hasn’t rained, crops are dying, there is a problem’. In the distance across the paddy fields, he sees an old colonial mansion and wonders if there is a story associated with it that he can use. The star of this story is the house.
Bernhard’s attempts to make his documentary frame three stories centred on the house. In the first, Ushintha, hired as the caretaker, appears with four children, not his own, who he is protecting from the war in the north of the country. When people come for the children, they run to hide. One boy goes into the forest, where he disappears into the protection of the Sap Mother. The other three disappear into the house. The second story relates to three loggers whose truck breaks down, and they spend the night in the house, never to be seen again. Then the house is rented by a family with two boys. When the authorities come for her husband, Lakshi puts her sons into the care of the house. Twenty years later, Ushintha’s daughter tracks his movements to the house and manages to free some of the trapped children, who have not aged.
There are some good descriptions in the book and evocative writing, but it is not always clear what is happening, why and where the knowledge the characters have comes from. The house itself was built in the 1870s or 90s by an English tea planter who cut down the forest to do so. It is unsurprising that this would annoy local spirits, but it seems strange that she would wait a hundred years to have her revenge. The house itself has two sides, the one seen by most people and an underside that soaks up water. The children trapped in this underside get there by supplying the house with water. As it absorbs the moisture, a portal opens, allowing the children to pass through. More water is needed to open the doorway again, but once on the other side, no one ages, so when the first group of three children are rescued, they are unchanged despite twenty years having passed.
The inconsistencies within the mechanism suggest that this book would work better at a longer length, allowing more description and ironing out some of the unexplained connections. There is no real suggestion of a connection between the Sap Mother and the behaviour of the house, so the best way of considering this book is as an allegory – or two. The Sap Mother might represent the effects of habitat destruction, while the thirsty house is a symbol of the more frequent droughts in this area due to climate change. While it would be a mistake to make the connections too obvious, perhaps a little more help is needed.
My biggest issue, though, is the problem of language. Bernhard and his camera assistant, Julia, presumably speak English and German, but there is no suggestion that they also speak the local dialect. All the local people are portrayed as having impeccable English, whereas, in a farming community such as this, it is likely that they would have very little. Who is translating? The other problem is historical context. It can be assumed that the documentary making is contemporary, but it takes a long time before there are any clues as to when the other sections are set. It is not evident whether the tales are set along a linear timeline. A longer book would allow some of these problems to be resolved.
While the idea behind the ‘Dry House’ is an interesting one, and each tale, as a short story, is well told, the whole needs a little rethinking.