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.
You always know what you’re going to get with a romantic novel, don’t you? – a great location, a feisty heroine, an interesting and hunky hero, difficulties to be overcome, misunderstandings to be cleared up and, eventually, a happy-ever-after ending. It’s why they’re so massively popular: in a confusing and often worrying world, romantic fiction provides an escape route to comfortable certainties where nice people always win through and not-so-nice people always get their come-uppance.
When Under a Cornish Sky, resplendent in its summery cover, thumped onto my doormat a few weeks ago, I was in just the right frame of mind for a some undemanding light fiction – and settled down that very evening to enjoy a bit of romantic tosh.
Most romantic novels don’t open with a middle-aged woman, who has recently enjoyed some afternoon delight with her toy boy, bickering with her husband of forty years. Indeed, most romantic novelists wouldn’t place such a selfish and basically unsympathetic character dead centre of their main storyline. But this is no ordinary romantic novel and Liz Fenwick has become a far from ordinary romantic novelist.
Victoria Lake is a sexually voracious, spectacle-wearing 50-something in the grip of an obsessive love; but the object of her passion isn’t a person, it’s a thing. It’s the garden of Boscawen – her family home in Cornwall – and so ruthlessly determined is she to return it to its former glory that she is almost literally prepared to do it over her husband’s dead body.
When he conveniently (for her) dies in a car crash she seems to have everything she ever wanted – his money, her toyboy, the house, the garden and her freedom – but when her husband Charles posthumously throws a monkey wrench into her plans, in the shape of an illegitimate daughter with whom she has to share Boscawen, the stage is set for a refreshingly different ‘take’ on a familiar theme.
In creating Victoria, so unloveable, angry and recognizably human, Liz Fenwick has done something very brave: she’s stepped outside the norms of the genre to explore love, ageing and – in a wonderfully unexpected moment – society’s casually unthinking sexism.
Nor does she neglect the younger generation. The illegitimate daughter, Demi, is scarcely less interesting than Victoria: an architect who also happens to be pretty, petite and a bit more pneumatic than she’s comfortable with, she’s more than capable of fighting her own corner, and provides both the bulk of the warmth in the story and the more conventional romance. There’s this gorgeous Australian gardener, you see … but even he is more than he seems to be – one more intriguing character in a book that managed to keep me guessing almost to the end.
The story is written with grit and verve. Victoria doesn’t mince her words, and neither does the author … some of the language is downright earthy, but totally in keeping with the new, darker style.
If I have a criticism at all, it’s that towards the end of the book I felt the originality of Victoria’s storyline was being subverted the better to fit into the romantic fiction genre. Others may not feel the same way … but I would love to see Liz Fenwick step completely out of the ‘romance’ tramlines and stretch her creative wings.
As it is, she may not have torn up the rule book, but she’s certainly left a substantial dent in it.
Orion. 2015. ISBN: 978-1409148272. 336pp.