The Ash House – at a glance
The School Reading Lists’ five word review: unsettling, wonderful, healing, magical and tender.
Children’s book title: The Ash House.
Children’s author: Angharad Walker.
Genre: Chapter book middle grade fiction.
Published by: Chicken House.
Recommended for children aged: 10-14.
First published: Paperback September 2021.
This children’s book is ideal for: Year 7-8 independent reading and KS3 class reading.
To see the latest price or order, click on the book cover image.
Try to imagine what would have happened if Franz Kafka had written Lord of the Flies. On one level this is a disturbing story for ten to thirteen-year-olds where the reader is caught between our real world and another place entirely; a place that is subject to its own rules, routines and hierarchies. On another level, this is an unsettling story for adults that questions authoritarian abuse, religion, politics and the moral codes that we take as given in any ‘civilised’ society.
A nameless eleven-year-old boy is suffering from chronic back pain which, at its most intense, can bring on seizures. He is taken, from the latest hospital that has failed him, to The Ash House. The boy, and the reader, assume this strange place, situated deep in the countryside, is a specialised treatment centre. Rather worryingly the driver who drops the boy at the house is in a great hurry to drive away as soon, and as fast, as possible. The boy is greeted by one of the young residents, Dom, short for Freedom, and he is given the name Sol (Solitude). Gradually we are introduced to the other children who occupy Ash House. “Niceness” is of paramount importance in the house and the children are named after virtues – Concord, Merit, Justice, Liberty, Charity and so on and it is made very clear that:
”Niceness isn’t just kindness. It’s all the things we need to be and to have”.
The Ash House was founded by the mysterious Headmaster who has absented himself for three years but checks on the lives of the children via drones or “the birds” to give them their Ash House name. It soon becomes clear that we are not in a convalescent home and that the residents are caught up in a surreal, nightmarish world – a world that evokes feelings of disorientation and helplessness in both the children and the reader. Gradually Sol becomes integrated into the Ash House community but, as his adopted name suggests, he is never fully accepted as one of the virtuous band of children who have been in residence for many years. Finally, the Headmaster returns in the guise of a plausible, smooth-talking doctor whose first task is to operate on Sol to cure his pain.
That is enough of the plot. I read this book with increasing levels of anxiety for the characters and a growing sense of admiration for the author. Angharad Walker develops the plot and the characters skilfully charting the lives of the Ash House girls and boys as they try to make sense of the bewildering world in which they find themselves. No-one in authority is to be trusted and we quickly learn not to expect answers to questions that would make some sense of events. Don’t expect happy ever after endings or even any semblance of closure.
Angharad Walker’s prose is perfectly matched to her subject. This isolated, vulnerable community is captured with a style that constantly shifts our focus from the real to the supernatural. There is a harrowing description of Sol being thrown into the hole that the children have dug to bury a dead pig:
“You don’t like being here? ….. you don’t like working here, eating here and sleeping here? Then sleep with the pig. Sleep in a hole….Concord scooped up some loose earth and started to fill the hole”.
A few pages later the wonderful healing and magical properties of the ash are described in tender, almost poetic, terms:
“Ash. It was falling, quieter than snow, thicker and thicker, settling on the surface of the lake as if carried on the wind from a nearby lake. Sol gasped and looked around. All around him the ash glowed. Each atom of it was a tiny firefly, burning orange and yellow. It lit the water all the way up to the shore.”
The Ash House is a great work of imagination that grips the reader from the first page. It is not an ‘easy read’ but it is refreshingly original and vividly powerful and as I read the book I realised that I cared deeply about these children. Perhaps the book may be read as a many-layered metaphor and each reader will have to make their own sense of, and so bring their own meaning to, the metaphor. For me, the book is about the universal human need for acceptance and security and is it too far–fetched to suggest that acceptance and security are the main constituents of love? And, as we all know, all you need is love.
Many thanks to Chicken House Books for the review copy.
If you like The Ash House by Angharad Walker you might also like: our Autumn term 2021 best new books list, By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harison, our 100 question quiz based on children’s literature titles, and The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable.
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