Reviews: Vivien Horler
The Golden Rule, by Amanda Craig (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)
Homesick: Why I live in a shed, by Catrina Davies (Quercus)
Two women meet on a train from London to Cornwall. Eve is wealthy, travelling first class, Hannah is in second class. The door between the carriages slides open and they make eye contact.
Hannah’s carriage is crowded and the air-con isn’t working; Eve is sitting coolly in splendid isolation. Eve beckons to Hannah to join her. They get talking.
Over a bottle of wine they discover they are both bitterly unhappy in their marriages. Eve comes up with a crazy proposal: what if each woman were to kill the other’s husband? Their meeting has been by chance, they have nothing in common, there would be nothing to connect them to each other’s lives or the crimes.
They make a pact.
At this point I thought, nah, come on – how likely is this? (Although the theme is not new; a similar plot was at the heart of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 thriller Strangers on a Train, a debt Amanda Craig readily acknowledges.) I was about to give up on the novel when I read the insightful line: “Divorce may start with the failure of love, but in the end it is always about money.”
I read on.
Eve’s husband lives in Cornwall in a crumbling mansion near Land’s End; she is on her way to discuss with him some aspect of their divorce. Hannah is on her way to be with her ailing mother as she dies.
After her mother’s death Hannah contrives to visit the crumbling mansion and to meet Stan, Eve’s husband. She is very frightened, faints, and he is kind to her. In the cold light of day Eve’s plan seems ridiculous.
Hannah is desperately short of money, working as a cleaner in London and caring for her six-year-old daughter Maisy. In the summer after her mum’s death, she and Maisie go back to Cornwall for the holidays, staying in her mother’s council house.
It turns out Stan needs to sell the crumbling mansion, and needs someone to help him tidy it up. Hannah obliges.
I know what this sounds like. But it’s more than that.
Despite its rugged beauty and the charming fishing villages and gardens that attract thousands of tourists every year, Cornwall is one of the poorest counties in England. The mines are closed and the china clay and fish are mostly are gone.
Many homes in pretty coastal towns like St Ives and Fowey and Port Isaac (where Doc Martin was filmed) are boarded up for most of the year. To the outrage of locals, many second home owners are able to exploit something called “the seaside loophole” which enables them to rent their second homes on short-lets and register these as a business; as a result they do not have to pay rates and taxes. But it is the rates contributed by the locals that pay for the services the tourists expect.
Craig touches on the greed of traditional aristocratic landowners; the yawning gulf between the locals and the visitors who arrive in flocks in the summer and then leave; the fortunate locals who own property in the pretty villages and the ones who live in relative poverty in the less attractive towns; and why Cornwall, which received a ton of money from the European Union, voted for Brexit.
And there is also discussion on the relative merits of literature – Hannah is a reader of classic women writers such as the Brontes, Jane Austen and George Elliot – and computer games (Stan creates games) with their varying outcomes depending on the player’s choices.
There are lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the county and its cliffs and glittering seas, there is a counter murder plot which involves a cave and the high tide, and a wonderful deerhound called Bran. I enjoyed it very much.
In her Afterword, Craig says Cornwall “has always possessed my imagination”, adding: “Those who are concerned for the real people who live there all year round would do well to read Catrina Davies’s memoir Homesick as well”.
I was born in Cornwall, and grew up on the stories my granny, mother and aunt told me. I have visited the places the family lived, and been down a tin mine – the men in my family were tin miners. And I still have family living in the county.
So I ordered Homesick: Why I live in a shed for my Kindle and read it with fascination.
Thirty-something Davies grew up in Cornwall, but when she was a child her architect father went bankrupt, her parents divorced, and a stable family life ended. Davies has not bought into the Western way of life, so she does what she wants to do: surfs and writes and composes music and plays her cello.
This means she is, as she repeatedly tells us, skint.
After struggling with drugs and eating disorders in her teens and 20s, she decides to live a better life, more in touch with herself and the planet. She gives up living in a boxroom in a tiny shared house in Bristol for £400 (about R8000) a month, and moves into a collapsing shed near Land’s End where her father had worked. (He owned the shed, but not the land.)
The trouble is you’re not allowed to live in a shed, and Davies has to try to disguise the fact this is now home. The problem was – is – Britain’s housing crisis. I know South Africa has a housing crisis too, but we assume that wealthy Britain doesn’t. Yet a report in 2015 showed Britain was the most unequal country in the EU. And between 2000 and 2015, homelessness in the UK rose by 40%.
Across Britain people of Davies’s age are known as the “renter generation”, because unlike their parents they can’t afford to buy their homes. Or as Davies puts it: “If food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost £51 (about R1 000).”
She refers to her sister’s family, who live nearby, who despite having a steady income, move into a tent over the summer to let their home to visitors so as to afford their mortgage. They are by no means the only ones. Apparently the average full-time income in Cornwall is £18 000 a year – about a quarter of the salary you’d need for a bond on an average house.
But Homesick is by no means just a polemic on class differences and homelessness in Cornwall. It’s also an ode to the country, its beauty, its wild seas and cliffs, its gulls and gannets, its barn owls and skylarks.
It chronicles Davies’s joy at getting a wood-burning stove, and how the smoke gives her presence away, resulting in a visit from the council. It talks about the menial jobs she takes on as a cleaner, gardener and waitress, which give her the freedom to live as she likes. She might be skint, but she is rich in time, within walking distance of several great surf spots, coves and cliffs.
She ends that she would find it hard to live in a house again. “Not just because it would mean sacrificing stories and songs on the altar of rent, but because houses and their contents seem tomblike … compared to the wealth of sea and sky and stars that nobody can ever own.
“Some days, when the evening sun is lighting up my floorboards and my bones are full of the ocean and my skin is thick with salt, I even find a kind of peace. The peace of knowing that the true of art of living is not to gather things and polish them and lay them out for others to admire, but to have next to nothing, get plenty out of it, and give the rest away.”