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by Ross Barkan

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-5420-3715-0
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

An Earth-loving collective turns sinister.

Lucien has no memory of life before House of Earth, his colorful upstate New York private school, where his classmates are “friends” and his teacher is a “mentor.” Students spend their days learning about the natural world, naming animals, plants, and trees, and learning how to live in “harmony” as a “collective.” Yet some of the lessons are stricter than others, like when Lucien is publicly reprimanded by Jack for painting his birdhouse black because it’s “negative” or when the class gets in trouble for attending a fellow student’s pool party. Lucien’s mother works at House of Earth, so she consistently and gently reinforces these lessons, especially the beneficence of House of Earth’s founder, O.C. Leroux. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the start of the war with Afghanistan, the collective begins to build dormitories and a wall to keep their people in and everyone else out. But it isn’t until friends begin disappearing that Lucien truly starts to wonder whether House of Earth may not be the utopia it claims to be. The novel follows Lucien as he grows, so the observations and voice of the early parts are childlike; Lucien sees everything but often doesn’t comprehend the true significance of Jack’s lectures or punishments or his mother’s lessons. This creates additional suspense, as the reader knows from the beginning that something is seriously awry despite the beatific vision offered by the collective. It’s hard not to root for Lucien and to desperately hope that his mother will save him, for their bond is lovingly conveyed throughout the first half of the book. Though Barkan never uses the word cult, House of Earth is chillingly evocative of many, and as the novel takes its darker turns, the end is both shocking and inevitable.

The child narrator’s perspective builds surprisingly effective suspense and horror.