Clare Fisher’s The Hole in the Wall: A Review by Dan Holloway

Clare Fisher’s The Hole in the Wall is a beautifully produced, exquisitely edited novella, just as I’ve come to expect from the fantastic Philistine Press. It’s daring, and so nearly brilliant. For such a short book The Hole in the Wall is incredibly ambitious, spanning five narrators in its 36 pages. And like all such ambitious, sprawling books (hell, even Bolaño can’t be uniformly stunning), some parts are stronger than others and some voices are more engaging and effective. In this case, the opening voice is the least effective by quite a long way, but read through it and you’ll be rewarded.

Hole in the Wall is not, as you might think, about a surreal Saturday afternoon gameshow. It’s hard to say what it is “about”, in fact. A house whose secrets tie the characters together? Three children bound by the secrets of their ancestors? In other words, is this the story of people or the story of a place? It works as both and yet, slightly frustratingly, Fisher doesn’t actually come down on one side or another. Caroline and Michael live with their son Oscar in a house to which the mysterious teenager is drawn. Treasure, who lives across town in a tower block with their grandmother, befriends Oscar, finding her way into the family’s affections until one day she and Oscar go missing. When they return, Caroline and Michael can no longer ignore her strange behaviour and forbid Oscar from seeing her. Then Jazz turns up in the house in the middle of the night, claiming ownership of a box he has found in the titular hole, a box from the time his mother and grandmother lived in the house, before his mother was sectioned and the family had to move out – a box containing letters that tell of life before decay set in.

And that is that, in terms of plot. There is also a mysterious Mr Preen who lurks in Treasure’s background, promising her, the weekend after the story ends, a party of her choosing. Preen’s presence provides a sinister horizon for the story that makes Treasure’s story not just uncomfortable but almost unreadable. Any glimmers of hope the body of the story gives us are undermined by the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen, and this sense of impending doom gives the whole thing a Poe-esque feel.

Fisher has succeeded in drawing some incredible characters. Treasure is at once sinister and heartbreaking; the understated, beautifully drawn beating heart of the story. She is a fantastist, a dreamer in the Billy Liar mould, creating imaginative worlds through her drawing, and a terrifying, twisted storytelling art, a way with words that is utterly at odds with her preternaturally calm exterior, worlds that both explain and replace the gaps in her past. Storytelling is not only Treasure’s strength, it is how she wields power, asserting herself over Oscar and Jazz, exercising a control that her naïve belief in Preen’s promise shows she doesn’t have in the adult world. It’s a fascinating way to handle the issue of coming of age, if hardly original, and reminded me in many ways of Bernard Rose’s incredible film Paperhouse (Rose also directed the urban horror Candyman, of which this story was also reminiscent).

Treasure is the story’s real strength, but she is also where the cracks appear. When we first meet Treasure, it is in the opening section, through Caroline’s eyes, where she lurks in the corner of the narrative eye. She is an effective manifestation of Caroline’s anxiety over her son, and touchstone of her troubled relationship with Michael. But she then disappears a little, giving way in Michael’s section to her twin, Jazz, a arc repeated when her own section leads into Jazz’s. And Jazz just doesn’t hold our attention the way Treasure does. He is a cipher, whose presence seems to serve primarily as an excuse for info-dumps about the past. It’s a valuable part of the story, but ending with Jazz is wrong. It deflates what has come before. Rather than skilfully weaving strands into a seamless whole, there is a minor and major strand whose relative roles the author hasn’t completely sorted.

A story like this stands or falls by its tightness and consistency, and this is where The Hole in the Wall ultimately falls down. Fisher hasn’t quite pinned her colours to the mast, and given the sweep and the detailed description of the house, that would turn this into a creepy account of the permanence and permeability of place; or drawn everything in and shown us Treasure’s life unwind as she unwinds the lives of those around her. But Fisher is close. Very close, and there are elements of beautifully handled intensity, in particular when Treasure’s imagination is let loose and she starts weaving her worlds. I want to read a longer story with Treasure at its heart. I really do. And an editor should have said this to Fisher earlier.

The Hole in the Wall is available as a free PDF at Philistine Press.