Book Review: Water Shall Refuse Them

Water Shall Refuse

Water Shall Refuse Them, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is described as folk horror. The atmosphere created is reminiscent of  works by Naomi Booth and Andrew Michael Hurley. There are undercurrents of disturbance and suspicion manifesting in characters whose actions raise many questions that are then gradually answered. The sense of place is dark and skilfully rendered.

Set in a remote village on the Welsh borders, where many resident families have lived for generations and retain long held prejudices and superstitions, the story is narrated by sixteen year old Nif whose family are still reeling from the death of her sister, Petra. It is the summer of 1976 and the intense heat adds a layer of discomfort. Grief has driven the family from their home in London to spend a month in this small village. As outsiders, few welcome their presence.

The story opens on the outward journey and quickly introduces elements with a touch of the uncanny. Nif holds a head on her lap. Her little brother, Lorry, is bleeding. The parents are distant and distracted, neglectful of their children’s needs. The cottage they are to stay in offers only basic facilities and hasn’t been lived in for years.

Having set the scene the author then introduces other key characters: near neighbours, Janet and her teenage son, Mally; the chapel congregation; a gang of girls Nif’s age who hang out to smoke and drink together. The censorious chapel goers are quick to warn Nif’s parents that Janet and Mally should be avoided. This advice is not heeded. Janet is beautiful and charismatic, despite succumbing regularly to inebriation. Mally takes a keen interest in Nif, suggesting they have much in common. One thing they do share is a willingness to kill or maim living creatures. Descriptions of their actions in this respect are both disturbing and distressing to read.

That is not to say there is any problem with the writing. The unfolding tale is taut and well structured, a finely tuned balance between revealing how family life was before Petra died – the impact of her birth and then details of the tragic event itself – and what happens in Wales. The narrative is deeply evocative with: rancid smells, venomous characters, a hint of witchcraft, and a pervasive air of malevolence. Although Mally often takes the upper hand in decision making, ultimately he underestimates Nif and the lengths she will go to in order to avenge festering slights.

There is tension aplenty although I guessed the final reveal early. None of the characters come out of this tale well. Despite all this it is a story worth reading. Just be aware that traits described capture seriously disturbed individuals who, for reasons worth pondering, continue to exist in plain sight.   

Water Shall Refuse Them is published by Dead Ink.

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