A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m a bit of a sucker for books with a well-defined sense of place, especially when that place is Cornwall – a county I loved and left some 30 years ago. It was therefore with high expectations that I opened Liz Fenwick’s debut novel, The Cornish House.
Set around Falmouth and the Helford Estuary, it tells the joint story of artist Maddie Hollis and her step-daughter-from-hell Hannah, thrown together against their joint inclinations by the death of Maddie’s husband – Hannah’s father. They leave London to live in Trevenen, a house Maddie has inherited, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, from someone she had never met and knew nothing about.
Both women are grieving in their different ways – Maddie by being Little Miss Businesslike and Organized and Hannah by throwing the world’s biggest adolescent strop – but both are equally drawn to and soothed by the third main character in the story, the house itself. A rambling and secluded Cornish manor house, Trevenen (which – architecturally speaking – sounds like a cross between Manderley and Jamaica Inn) has more ghosts, mysterious noises, dusty old documents and hidden rooms than you can shake a stick at.
There are mysteries in Maddie’s life, and Liz Fenwick cannily spins them out for almost the entire length of the book, drip-feeding the odd clue here and there allowing you to build up your own picture of the events that had led to the mismatched pair uneasily sharing the same house – a tried and tested page-turning device that seldom fails.
Circulating around the central trio of Maddie, Hannah and Trevenen are a cast of neatly delineated characters, most of whom actually serve a purpose in the plot rather than just being there as set dressing, which is always refreshing; as was the fact that although there are a couple of eligible men in the frame, the main focus of the story is by no means how Maddie chooses between them and lives happily ever after.
The story was sufficiently unusual, intriguing and unpredictable to keep me coming back to find out what would happen next, but having said that – and bearing in mind that I was reading an uncorrected proof – I felt that in several places it needed tighter editing and even, in one or two sections, some rewriting (always hard, I know).
For example, I found the beginning a bit pedestrian with some everso slightly stilted dialogue, but as it soon picked up pace and rhythm I dismissed the feeling and settled down for a nice piece of escapism. Then, about two-thirds of the way in, the book seemed to lose its sense of direction. The writing became choppy and the scene changes jerky and not terribly well signposted – the effect was similar to watching a film with dodgy continuity. One minute Maddie was inwardly ruminating her unhappy lot and the next, the narrative had shifted without warning to Hannah. I’m honestly not sure whether the fault was with the writing, the editing or the layout – or whether I was just tired and not paying sufficient attention.
My single biggest reservation however is that the plot features – and indeed hinges on – not one, not two, not three but FOUR deaths, plus the outbreak of a notifable disease (for which I suspect the Cornwall Tourist Board and Falmouth in particular might not thank the author). Death and illness happen, of course, and in the end all human life is a tragedy … but it seemed to sit uncomfortably in a comparatively lightweight, romantic novel. Possibly it’s just me – and I’d be very interested to hear what other people think.
On the plus side we have the wonderfully obnoxious Hannah, who makes Harry Enfield’s Kevin look like a cherub (I can’t remember ever before wanting so badly to strangle a character in a book, after slapping her senseless and shaking her until her teeth rattled), Maddie’s down-to-earth friend Tamsin and – as I intimated at the beginning – a tremendous sense of place which literally transported me back 400 miles and 30 years. For which, much thanks …
The above misgivings notwithstanding, there are many good things in The Cornish House – and in stark contrast to entirely too many romantic novels I’ve ploughed through grimly (and never reviewed), reading it was by no means a penance.
Liz Fenwick has the makings of an excellent writer and I’ll be waiting for her next novel with keen interest.
Orion. 2012. ISBN: 978-1409142737. 253pp.