Book review: Earwig by Brian Catling

There’s clearly a dark European fairy tale element to Brian Catling’s Earwig, one even that may be indebted to a certain type of surreal East European cinema. There’s a sense that classic tropes have been imaginatively reworked for our times, for a modern audience, with a hint of Kafka and dark heart of war colouring if not directly influencing the narrative. There may indeed be more to the work than it being a delightfully Gothic nightmare, but if there is it’s not laid out in any obvious manner.

On the surface the situation described in Earwig at least fits a fairy-tale narrative pattern familiar to one extent or another from Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard; the story featuring a beautiful young girl who is held captive by an ugly cruel tyrant. Will a prince come and save her? Well, although one bold young blackmarket urchin Pedric recognises the situation as that of a “maiden imprisoned by an ogre”, he’s perhaps not the saviour you might be expecting.

Nor indeed is the situation entirely in keeping with familiar tropes, since the girl, Mia, is being held in grand house in Liège for an unusual reason, her saliva captured from her toothless mouth, put into rubber moulds to create frozen teeth. The purpose of this exercise isn’t entirely clear, but Aalbert Scellinc has been employed to be her guardian for the last three years of her captivity. There’s little contact between the man and the child, Aalbert – gifted with an ultra-sensitive hearing ability that can even detect shifts of mood that has earned him the nickname Earwig – preferring to listen in on the girl in her room.

For three years this arrangement has been without incident – Aalbert even finding time to let off steam drinking heavily at a sinister club called Au Metro – but one day Aalbert’s employers contact him and tell him to prepare to bring the girl to Paris, and – along with a rather disturbing incident that subsequently takes place at Au Metro – it throws everything into turmoil.

Although there are some references to Aalbert’s horrific experiences as a ‘listener’ during the way that add a further dark surreal character to the story, I don’t think there’s anything more to Earwig than it being a strange little fairy-tale, but like many fairy-tales it taps rather into dark corners of the human psyche – fear, guilt, innocence certainly all sentiments more palpable in the post-war years, not to mention a sense of body horror. That mood is pervasive throughout the short novel, made visible even in dark creatures like cats and swarms of fleas, in sinister nightclubs with Satanic visitors and in cities, cities here that particularly have an affinity with death in their histories.

What Earwig clearly does have however is some beautiful creative prose (“a tendril of vengeance had swollen into a tentacle of revenge”) that is capable of capturing those undercurrents and putting them into poetic imagery and sinister figures. For such a short work, from an author (Catling is foremost known as a sculptor) responsible for the expansive Vorrh trilogy, there is nonetheless purposeful progression and extension out into other disturbing incidents, characters and places, not so much leading towards a typically fairy-tale ending as much as accumulating a catalogue of human horrors and fears.


Updated: Sep 22, 2019

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Book review: Earwig by Brian Catling | The Digital Fix