Back in 2014 I fell in love with Charles Lambert’s autobiographical novel, With a Zero at its Heart. Made up of 24 themed chapters, each of which has 10 paragraphs of 120 words, it was a triumph of disciplined structure, much of it beautifully written. Naturally when I heard about his new novel I was interested to see how he’d chosen to follow it. Nothing conventional seemed likely and The Children’s Home certainly can’t be accused of that. Impossible to fit it neatly into a genre – dystopian fiction, horror story, adult fairy story – it’s one of the most unusual books I’ve read and I’m still puzzling over it.
Morgan Fletcher lives behind a high wall on a large estate. Horribly disfigured, he was once a beautiful young man now hiding himself from the flinching gaze of the outside world. His housekeeper, Engel, appeared one day, apparently knowing all about him, sent – he assumes – by his sister who takes care of the family business doing Morgan knows not what. One day a child arrives, then another, and another. Soon the house is full of children and babies all of whom are accepting of Morgan’s disfigurement. Doctor Crane is brought in to attend the children, later becoming Morgan’s friend. The house is stuffed with treasures collected by Morgan’s grandfather which the children and Crane happily sift through. When they find a wax model of a pregnant woman, the children seem entranced and are later found keening in a circle around it. All seems well – if a little strange – until government agents appear, taking away one of the children with them when they leave. Moira must be found, and David, who has become the children’s leader, knows where to look insisting that Morgan must come with him. What Morgan discovers shocks him utterly but leads to a form of liberation for all.
That little summary barely does justice to the strangeness of some of the imaginative flights Lambert takes in this novella. It’s a book in which there’s a great deal about motherhood and children, and the way in which children are treated by society – there are echoes of the Second World War with mentions of children taken to camps in the East and gassed. There’s also the matter of Morgan’s complicity in whatever it is that his sister oversees at the factory – something far worse than he (or we) could ever have imagined but he has always known that it was to do with ‘power’ and all that implies. All this is expressed in plain, straightforward language, a world away from the lyrical beauty of With a Zero at its Heart. It’s a fascinating book, not one which lends itself to easy analysis. I think I’ll be scratching my head over it for some time to come.