In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

A young couple gets married and moves to a distant, isolated lakeshore to begin their new life together. He hunts, she sings, and their world goes round. He begins to build their home – a house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods – and they dream of starting a family. Only life is never that simple, not in reality and not in fiction. Pregnancy does not come easily to his wife and she loses baby after baby. The husband, bound and determined to father a child, becomes angry at the world around him – whether the anger is of his own doing or the undue influence of an invader is not entirely clear. The strain on their marriage is dark and palpable. Questions remain unasked, touches are evaded, and the distance between the couple grows.

Is this not what you wanted? asked my wife. Have I not given you what you asked of me, all you have ever asked? No matter which way I opened my mouth, I did not know what to say, how to say anything without saying it all.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is one of the most wholly original and haunting novels I’ve read. I read it once, not quite sure what to make of it, but certain I didn’t like it. I read it a second time and fell in love with its beauty and nuance. While it’s a hard novel to discuss and summarize, it’s even harder to pinpoint what makes such a dark and terrifying story so touching.

In the House upon the Dirt

Here are ten reasons to go purchase/borrow/check out/read in any way you can In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell.

10. It would not be wrong to call this novel both fable-like and mythical – objects are sung into being, the moon weighs down the sky, and every time you look, the house has added a new room.

9. Despite it’s dream-like qualities, it would also not be wrong to call this novel an unflinching examination of love, marriage, and parenthood and how we define its success. Is success measured by what we have or what we lack?

8. If you desire one thing above all else, what are you willing to do to get it? Would you lie? Would you kill? Would you pretend?

7. It’s one of the most genre-bending pieces of literature I’ve read. It has undertones of horror, mythology, intrigue, folklore, poetry, and despair. It defies classification and confounds any attempt at interpretation.  In short, it’s thought-provoking…

6.  It’s perfectly balances mundane marital discord with the fantastic – when the bed seems empty because his wife is absent, the distance between the two sides literally and figuratively grows.

5. The novel has a quiet, natural brutality that is quite beautiful. Even with the husband’s anger and selfishness, it’s a beautiful story well told.

4. Because I cannot say it better, I’m borrowing from The Daily Beast, “Bell has crafted a terrifying and entirely spell-binding story about what it means to be a husband, a father, and, more simply, a man”.

3. More importantly, there is a bear, a squid, a fingerling, and a foundling.

2. There are no names (that I discerned) and no places in the novel, just a husband, a wife, and an isolated lakeside. However, the setting is incredible and vividly imagined. The main characters, particularly the husband, are finely drawn. The characters are easily capable of inducing terror, sympathy, and jealousy.

1. And finally, you should read In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods because it is a novel that demands discussion – and I need someone to discuss it with.

I’ve given you ten reasons to read this novel, if you need more just ask. Matt Bell’s debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods* is a poignant, dream-like fable about the limits and power of love and memory in a marriage. Oddly enough, there is a scene is this novel similar to In the Tall Grass and while that version severely unsettled me, this one seemed appropriate, even inevitable. I’ll forewarn you, this is not a novel to be read quickly. it needs to be savored, considered, and, if you’re like me, read through twice to appreciate the true value of this remarkable story. 4.5/5.

Curried Chickpea Potato StewIn one of the novel’s saddest scenes, the family’s sitting down to eat stew (though I can nearly guarantee it wasn’t a vegetarian stew as this one is). I am recommending Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew, it’s excellent served over rice.

*I received a digital galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.


7 thoughts on “In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

    1. It’s definitely a love it or hate it type of book. And there’s really not much horror to it, it’s just dark and melancholy in spots (as well as very odd). I think you’ll appreciate it as it’s incredibly unique, though I’m not sure if you’ll love it. It took me two tries to really like it.


    1. That’s the point! And, really, it’s only fair – I’ll be reading Ordinary Grace because of you, you can read Matt Bell because of me.


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