I have mentioned before how some books you instantly fall in love with and know are for you as you get that elusive feeling of the book tingle. Something I haven’t written about, and probably should, is when you start a book slightly unsure and then it coaxes you and surprises you as you completely fall in love with it and end up hugging it (yes, hugging it) afterwards. The latter was very much the case with Julia Rochester’s debut novel The House at the Edge of the World, which I will be very much surprised if it doesn’t become one of my books of the year even though it is barely April.
Penguin Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction
When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die. There was a good moon. There was no wind. There was no excuse. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.
As The House at the Edge of the World opens we are drawn into the world twins Morwenna and Corwin one night they will never forget, well they were all asleep but you know what I mean, when their father is last seen, by a drunk friend, falling off a cliff into the depths below. A night when everything changes, or a night where everything gets a little more surreal afterwards for Morwenna and Corwin don’t live in a typical 2.4 children family. Their grandfather, Matthew, spends hours and hours hidden away in a room painting a map of a land that symbolises where they live, their family and the stories of both. Their mother seems to have suddenly been freed by the death of her husband, yet resentful left in a house she feels she was never really wanted in.
This all unfolds within the first few chapters, however initially I wasn’t sure I was going to get through the first few pages as the writing was throwing me slightly, as was the narrator. There is something quite surreal as this novel starts in the fact that everything feels a little bit surreal and a little bit, well, drunk. Having had this feeling with Sarah Perry’s debut After Me Comes The Flood and being thoroughly rewarded for my perseverance I, well, persevered. Then there came Morwenna as a narrator, spiky, sarchastic and pretty much disliked by everyone she meets, don’t get me wrong I love a dislikeable character but she along with the style of the book were throwing me around a bit and testing me… But I like to be tested and sure enough she won me over, which I imagined if she was real and knew would really piss her off, ha.
That morning the heat had sparked a rush on Slush Puppies at the Sea View Cafe and we ran out of electric blue, which upset people. ‘It’s all the same shit,’ I told my customers. ‘They’re not flavours, they’re just different combinations of chemicals. The virulent green tastes almost exactly the same and is just as bad for you.’
My boss took me aside and said, ‘Morwenna, you are a bad tempered, foul-mouthed little smart arse and the only reason I’m not firing you is that it is the end of the season anyway.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to my customers, chastened. ‘But we’re out of raspberry.’
Anyway back to the story. Things settle somewhat after their fathers death and soon enough Morwenna and Corwin are spending more time away from the family home, yet always it calls to them and draws them back. Seventeen years after their fathers death Corwin starts to question that fateful night and as the twins start digging into their families past they discover a family, a map and a crumbling house brimming with secrets all infused with the urban legends and myths of the land in which they were born. Well I was pretty much hooked from then on and became more and more so the more I read and the more quirky and mysterious it all became.
One of the many things that I think Julia Rochester does fantastically well with this book is set it very much in the now and yet somehow make it feel timeless and also slightly other worldly. Morwenna ends up living in London after leaving home, yet because bar a few work colleagues and a boyfriend she reluctantly meets she seems out of time with the city and a bit of a ghost living in it. When she goes back home most people dislike her and her friendship group have dispersed and so again she becomes some kind of loner, almost a harbinger of something. This makes her both a fascinating and interestingly frank and vulnerable narrator who also has an agenda and scores to settle which brings in the question of her reliability. All of which I love in a novel and the way Rochester did this felt really unique.
The other aspect that gives The House at the Edge of the World this wonderful sense of otherness is the interwoven tales of otherness. As we read on we are told of tales of mermaid sittings, demons roaming the valleys, things that live in the woods, the devil himself and also those people who seem a bit other and out of kilter with the world. Those people who are part of society yet seem so very different, those people who fascinate some or bring fear to others. Like an old lady who might look like a witch, or a Crab Man…
The Crab Man looked like Matthew’s idea of Long John Silver, but without the peg-leg or the parrot. Instead, his props were the crabs that rattled about in the metal bucket at the kitchen door. Laughing saltily, he would take a couple out of the bucket, one in each hand, and, with a leathery leer, wave them in Matthew’s face. Snippety-snap went the terrifying crab claws within an inch of Matthew’s nose. They smelt of fish-water and engine oil.
What adds to all this is the sense of mystery and the fact that at its heart this is also a family drama. Actually I want to turn that around and say… THIS is how you write a family drama. I like a family drama as much as the next reader yet sometimes they can be a bit staid. With otherworldly maps, demons and hints of the supernatural, unsolved family mysteries and legends all whirled into the mix of relations who love and loathe each other, Julia Rochester has created something quite, quite brilliant and I think rather unique. I cannot say better than that this book in some way cast a spell over me which I had no idea was coming. In fact you could say The House at the Edge of the World was the perfect unexpected tale of the unexpected. I hugged it after I closed the final page, superb.