When I first started university I developed a real George Orwell fixation after discovering his writing encompassed so much more than his most famous novels “1984” and “Animal Farm”. I read through all his major publications in order and a favourite novel was “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. This is the perfect book for cynical young adults who value high literature above all else and are frustrated by our money-obsessed society. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the group of rebellious young friends in Julia Rochester’s “The House at the Edge of the World” take this novel as their bible. The narrator Morwenna Venton and her twin brother Corwin come from a family that historically owned lots of land in their remote corner of England, but over the years it was sold off piece by piece until the family was left to subsist in a large house on a square of land near the ocean. The twins and their circle of friends plan to live lives of high ideals, but their reality is shaken when late one evening the Venton twins’ father John falls off a cliff while drunkenly pissing over the edge. The group becomes fractured and they settle into lives far different from the ones they dreamed about.
Morwenna finds a job restoring books in London and eventually meets a man named Ed who seems to share her principles. He’s on a mission to photograph CCTV cameras around the capital as an act of rebellion for the 1984-esque culture of surveillance. But she’s unable to settle into her job and relationship because she’s haunted by the image of her father falling off the cliff. Continuously drawn back to the family’s remote home, she and her brother delve further into what happened that fateful night. The case turns into a mystery which the twins are determined to solve. Through visits with old friends, their mother Valerie, her new husband Bob and the family’s reclusive and artistic patriarch Matthew, they uncover the dark truth about their father’s fate.
It’s interesting to read how the relationship between the narrator and her twin brother develops and changes over the course of the novel. Corwin is handsome, philanthropic and much adored - whereas the narrator Morwenna is more combative and difficult. People comment quite openly to her how they don’t like her and she’s not surprised by this. There is a shocking scene at a wedding where she confronts her mother and I love a good explosive scene at a wedding. But, as outwardly loved as Corwin is, it feels in some ways that Morwenna is more emotionally honest. She remarks how “Somewhere I had read that in a case of conjoined twins one tends to be stronger, sapping the other’s blood and organs. I wondered which of us was the parasite.” This relationship between close siblings goes into some dark territory and raises questions about how our personalities can be divided.
One of the most fascinating characters is their grandfather Matthew who for various reasons has shored up his life to the space around their house. His entire life he has been working on a single painting which represents their immediate surroundings and fills it with heavy symbolic imagery. In a fascinating way, his picture represents a mindset with an emotionally skewed sense of reality. Morwenna observes of Matthew that “In his world truth co-existed with invention, embellishment might be more truthful than fact, fact might be more magical than myth.” I enjoyed how his character raises challenging questions about whether a circumscribed life such as this hides someone from the world or helps them engage with it more meaningfully.
“The House at the Edge of the World” is a compelling, unique novel with a story that gains real momentum as it goes along. I appreciated how it explores issues of being an outsider in society and the dissolution of ideals as one grows older. It also has many meaningful things to say about relationships between friends and family.
I remember this book coming out last summer. I was drawn to the subject and beautiful cover, but didn’t get to reading it. I’m glad the Baileys Prize longlist prompted me take it up.