Earwig by Brian Catling

Earwig got his nickname from his grandfather.

At the start of this story he is employed to look after a strange little girl in a flat in Liege. He spies on her, listens to her by holding a glass up to the wall.

But he never touches her except when, as part of his duties, he is required to make teeth of ice and insert them in her gums.

Earwig takes a rare day off, which he spends drinking by himself in Au Metro, a seedy bar full of drunks, dancers and eccentrics. It is St Martin’s day and in the evening as crowds parade through the street carrying lanterns through the snow, he is drawn reluctantly into a conversation with a sinister stranger called Tyre. As a result Earwig accidentally maims a waitress with a broken bottle. He understands that on some level Tyre meant this to happen.
Shortly afterwards a black cat is delivered to the flat, unasked for. The girl forms an immediate bond with it, but Earwig identifies it as the enemy.

Travelling across country by train, transporting the girl and her black cat, Earwig is increasingly caught up in a web of unfortunate and increasingly violent coincidences.

I had heard quite a lot of good things about Brian Catling’s Vorrh trilogy before reading this novella, and so I thought I had a good idea what to expect. I had heard that The Vorrh was a strange and sometimes obscene book with beautiful prose and some suggestions of horror. Earwig certainly fits that same description, but even so… I was not prepared for this.

I just didn’t expect it to be quite so… weird.

I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. There are plenty of people out there who adore weird fiction, and this book might well be right up their alley. It’s just that my personal threshold for weird is really quite low, and unfortunately that really hampered by enjoyment of this story.

The blurb communicates a fair bit of what’s going on. We have an older WW2 survivor named Aalbert who is known as “the earwig” due to his incredible hearing. He is tasked by a mysterious group of people to look after a small girl, who must never leave the flat that they live in, and who must have teeth made out of her own frozen saliva inserted into her gums every few days.

This is quite a “literary” book, with stylised prose that is full of metaphors. When we are first introduced to Aalbert, he is physically described in a way that could lead you to believe he actually is an insect. This kind of thing happens throughout, such that at times it can be difficult to determine what is “real” and what is just a narrative device. I got the feeling that the author’s love of metaphor extended to the story as whole, with these characters and situations acting as symbolism for… something. Something that I didn’t pick up on, unfortunately.

To be completely honest, I bounced off this book in a lot of ways. At some point, there is a mention that Aalbert is aroused by the girl in his charge. This, coupled with the listening to her at night with a glass held to the wall, did little but make me feel uncomfortable. Which I guess was the point. But I still don’t want to read about it.

This wasn’t a book for me. I could appreciate Catling’s skill for building tension and atmosphere, and admire some small turns of phrase here and there, but it wasn’t a good fit for my tastes.

If you like the weird and the surreal, and you’re not the kind of reader who demands “why?” and “what does that mean?” while reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like this book more than me. In that case, it might be worth checking out the sample, or searching for another reviewer who is able to peel back the layers of symbolism. Regrettably, that reviewer isn’t me.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Coronet, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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