I have a lot of mixed thoughts about T. Kingfisher’s “A House With Good Bones”. On the one hand, it’s a haunting, deeply effective look at the oppressiveness of familial trauma mixed with an incredibly creepy dose of unknowable horror. But on the other hand, it feels like a book that gets lost in its own ideas, bouncing back and forth between them.
Samantha Montgomery returns to her childhood home after getting furloughed from her latest archaeological dig. When she arrives, she finds the house repainted and her mom in a deep state of anxiety – as though something, or someone, is haunting her. And to make matters worse, strange occurrences keep piling up. Vultures seem to circle the house, as though keeping a close eye on all those inside it. There appear to be no bugs in the garden, yet swarms of ladybugs flood the house. And worst of all, Samantha’s mother seems to believe her grandmother, Grama Mae, is alive, twenty years after her death.
What Kingfisher does very well is create this palpable sense of building dread. From the vultures to the unsettling house to Samantha’s increasingly disturbing dreams and hallucinations, “A House With Good Bones” is a masterclass in building and maintaining tension. By about the halfway point, you could cut through the tension with a knife. And the last half of the book is a perfect escalation of tension and horror that builds to a genuinely terrifying climax.
Samantha’s exploration of her familial trauma, the damage done to her and her mother by her grandmother (and the damage done to her grandmother by her great-grandfather), makes for an excellent hook. After all, what is scarier than unresolved family issues? Especially when those unresolved issues take the form of strange, increasingly dangerous supernatural events. Kingfisher deftly delves into this trauma, exploring how it impacts Sam and her mother. It makes for an intriguing read, often upsetting but never anything less than engrossing.
It’s the final third, or so, of the book where things fall apart. Staying away from spoilers, let’s just say that the family trauma and the ongoing supernatural elements eventually come together in a tangled web of horrific strangeness. The problem is that as the book focuses more on the supernatural elements, it loses track of its emotional hook, of resolving this trauma that’s been haunting this family for decades. And because it loses that focus, everything ends up getting wrapped up far too neatly to be wholly satisfying. Plus, the supernatural elements remain both underdeveloped and under-explained, so you’re kind of forced to just go with the flow in a way that feels alien to the rest of the book. It’s still enjoyable, and it’s definitely horrific in the best way possible. But it makes for a slightly disappointing ending given how well Kingfisher sets up these plotlines.
At the end of the day, “A House With Good Bones” is an enjoyable, horrific, and haunting read. The prose isn’t necessarily my style (it’s a very monologue-y, first-person POV affair). On the one hand, Samantha’s narration gives us an excellent look into her psyche, giving her a very realistic quality. But on the other hand, it’s just a bit distracting at times. But your mileage may vary. On the whole, it’s a quick-paced book, filled with twists and turns, a creepy house, and enough familial trauma to make your head turn. It’s well worth a read if you’ve never read one of Kingfisher’s books before, or if you’re in search of a good, spine-tingling read that’ll stay with you long after you finish it.
3.5 out of 5 wands.