Book Review: Earwig, by B. Catling

This week, I thought I’d try an author who’s new to me; specifically, Brian Catling (The Vorrh). As I’ve done previously, I decided to give a novella a go before diving into a series, and Earwig fits the bill nicely. Has it left me hungry for more though? Read on to find out!

In the Belgian city of Liège, Aalbert Scellinc watches over a young girl named Mia. A veteran of a First World War listening post, his auditory abilities (and propensity for eavesdropping on her) justify his nickname – Earwig. But a chance encounter with a mysterious, supernaturally powerful individual named Tyre turns Earwig’s life inside out. It’s not long before a cat – unasked for, and impossible to get rid of – turns up at the flat, seemingly causing things to go even more awry.

Said cat is not interested in making friends with Earwig, and the feeling is mutual. It does take to Mia though, perhaps recognising in her a kindred spirit owing to their shared impediment. Like her new feline friend, Mia has no teeth, and wears a slender glass tube at all times in order to capture every last drop of her spittle. She then takes this “bounty” and pours it into a tray of tooth shaped moulds before freezing them. Three hours later, her new teeth are ready to be fitted into her surgically prepared gums. 

Exactly why Mia’s teeth have all been removed is just one of the many mysteries in Earwig. As a mental image it’s certainly memorable, and the description of her is just one of many instances of Catling willing an extraordinarily depicted character into life in just a few sentences. Earwig himself is similarly well described, indeed his description opens the novel, as he’s observed with the scrutiny of an etymologist and pinned down with the pen of a poet. Despite being just 150 pages long, there isn’t a single character in Earwig who doesn’t have something memorable about them; it’s as if with every nuance and tic they carve out a space in the tale for themselves. Their descriptions border on caricature at times, but this certainly isn’t a criticism – they serve to make Catling’s Liège all the more interesting, like an intricately woven tapestry.

The character who actually seems the most mundane – at least at first –  is Tyre himself, but then they do say it’s always the ones you least suspect. Earwig’s encounter with him is initially fairly normal, with small talk taking place (despite his best efforts), but things soon deteriorate. Au Metro, Earwig’s watering hole of choice, is as fitting as a location could conceivably be for some of the story’s most colourful characters, its swirling maelstrom of drunken dancing and revelry lending their fateful encounter a diabolical carnival atmosphere. Images linger long in the mind’s eye, so much so that you’d almost think you’d stopped for a drink there yourself. When Tyre provokes Earwig into committing a horrific assault, it becomes yet another memory for the wretched individual to attempt to scuttle away from; increasingly difficult with the load that he already carries, but even harder when events seem to be conspiring against him.

And Earwig is so wretched, that much is clear from the start. Wracked by guilt for events in his past, he has turned in on himself, becoming bitter and twisted. Whether he is a product of his upbringing or of the choices he makes depends on how charitable you’re feeling, but he is not a character created to be liked; do not come hoping to find a kindred spirit or a moral lesson of any description, as you won’t find either. But you won’t miss them. Earwig manages to feel grand despite its slim size, with an unsettling air of mystery and elegant and sumptuous prose. It’s vivid, elusive and hallucinatory – an odd little gem to really savour.

Earwig is published by Coronet (Hodder & Stoughton) and is available in paperback now.

Currently reading: Under Fortunate Stars, Ren Hutchings
Currently listening: The Hunter, Mastodon

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