Water Shall Refuse Them is an retro coming-of-age novel with a horror edge, set in a heatwave in 1970s rural Wales. Sixteen-year-old Nif, her little brother Lorry, and her parents are spending the summer in a cottage in Wales following the death of her sister. Instead of healing, the sweltering atmosphere and isolation only exacerbates their problems: her mother’s grief, her father’s frustration, Nif’s own belief in strange rituals that might bring her answers. Nif meets a strange teenage boy, Mally, who has his own secrets, but neither he nor his mother Janet seem to be quite what the family need and the locals seem to hate them.
The sense of atmosphere in the novel is impressive and unnerving, a kind of haze where heat and grief and twisted rituals float like logic. The combination of mundane and folk horror elements with retro coming-of-age give the story a real charge, and it feels like a very British twist on a style that may seem more American, from authors like Shirley Jackson. Grief and adolescence are made strange, whilst the logic of superstition and the power of belief are almost tangible. The senses are crucial too, with sound and scent prevalent and there being a feeling of the heatwave hanging over the entire story.
This is a debut novel that allows for ambiguity and doesn’t tell the reader everything, building up atmosphere and a really eerie sense of what might happen. In her wild and unsettled protagonist, Lucie McKnight Hardy creates a character both sympathetic and menacing, and in some ways the whole novel feels like following a trail littered with bad omens, much like the dead animals littered throughout the book. The writing and atmosphere is what really makes it memorable, as well as the unnerving line between superstitious horror and twisted human nature and emotion.