Book review: The Cornish House by Liz Fenwick
When my family moved back to the UK from Germany, shortly before my baby brother was born, my Welsh father and Scottish mother couldn’t agree where to live, so they looked to England as a compromise solution. And (for any English people reading this) a very fine compromise it was, too! Dad had always loved Cornwall and would have loved to have lived there but he didn’t quite make it. He was offered a job in North Devon, which he accepted happily enough because it put us close enough to the Cornish border to make forays over it at weekends and during the school holidays. And so, my childhood was filled with places such as Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and Clovelly, the ‘Lorna Doone’ country of nearby Exmoor and trips over the border to King Arthur’s reputed birthplace at Tintagel and Daphne du Maurier’s Fowey. And growing up in a small fishing village, with cobbled streets and narrow alleys that seemed to echo with the ghosts of smugglers and seafaring men, it’s little wonder that I devoured books filled with the stories and legends inspired by the country around me.
I think that’s why place is still every bit as important to me in books as are the characters. The best books are the ones where the place a story is set is just as much of a character. I want to feel wholly immersed in the world the writer’s created, to the extent where I could be sitting in the same room as the characters or walking along a step or two behind them. So opening a book like Liz Fenwick’s The Cornish House and having not only Cornwall but Trevenen, the house of the title, so effectively realised was wonderful. It felt like coming home. Every time I opened the book, I was sucked in and that, in turn, made me feel more involved with the lives of the main characters Maddie, an artist, and her step-daughter Hannah.
When we first meet Maddie and Hannah, they’re in a car at night, driving along dark country lanes in a tunnel of high hedgerows that makes you think they’re being propelled forward into a new life, like a small ball is in a game of bagatelle. Maddie’s beginning to worry that they’ll never reach their destination, there’s been some earlier friction between the two and you know that they’re running away from something. Or, at least, that one of them is while the other is being unwillingly dragged along with her. And that’s when the car breaks down and Maddie has to go for help. It’s a great opening to the novel because it immediately raises a number of questions about their relationship and why they’re making this journey, and plunges you right into that country lane with them, wondering where their story will take both them and you.
It’s probably not giving too much away to tell you that Maddie and Hannah both make it to Trevenen, the Cornish House of the title, which has been left to Maddie by someone she didn’t know very well. This is where the story really becomes interesting. A fresh start somewhere new could tempt a person to try and reinvent herself but sometimes, a place forces you to face up to what you’re brooding over and become your true self, while you’re discovering the secrets it holds. And this is what happens. As layers of dust and paint and wallpaper are stripped away from the house, Maddie and Hannah are also stripped of their prejudices and doubts and fears, as they learn to make a life for themselves in a new place. To do this, they have to get to know each other, as well as themselves. It’s certainly not easy for either of them – or the reader. I cared about both of them and there were times when I wanted to sit them down in the same room and force them to talk things through. And yes, okay, I admit to occasionally also just wanting to slap some sense into the pair of them but then I’ve never been a patient person. Happily, having been in the same place for years, Trevenen is much more patient and willing to give them the time and space they so badly need.
Saying all that, I don’t want you to think that Liz Fenwick has written a book with only three characters, or restricted her setting to Trevenen and its grounds. She hasn’t at all. Liz Fenwick’s clear love of Cornwall, its people and places, comes through in her descriptions of them. She takes you to the coast, parties on the beach, strands you on rocks as the tide turns, takes you for drinks at a riverside pub and peoples her novel with characters full of life. My favourite of these was Old Tom – a twinkle in the eye and a mischievous sense of fun gets me every time – but I’m sure I won’t be alone in singling him out for a special mention. The house may date back to older times but you get a real taste of modern Cornish life here too, so while the novel unravels long-kept secrets and investigates the pasts of the house and some of the characters, it also feels fresh and modern at the same time. Maddie isn’t attempting to live the life of a Daphne du Maurier heroine, she’s very much a 21st century woman: fiercely independent, often lost and winging it, wanting to support herself and her step-daughter and looking to find herself more than she’s looking to find a new man. One of the things I liked best about The Cornish House is that, while there is some romance in the book, it’s as much about giving yourself space and time to grieve and finding a way to move on with your life that’s right for you, and about learning to love yourself as much as anyone else.
I’ve been recommending this beautiful debut novel to friends ever since having finished reading it, and I’m recommending it again now to readers of this blog. If you love Cornwall, you’ll enjoy this, while if you’ve never been there in your life, you couldn’t have a better guide than Liz Fenwick. I’d let her take you to The Cornish House, if I were you. You’ll want to stay.
The Cornish House is Liz Fenwick’s debut novel and is published by Orion and available from all good bookshops and online retailers, such as Amazon UK, Amazon US, the Book Depository and Waterstones. Her second novel, A Cornish Affair, is also now available. You can find out more about Liz and her books on her Author Website or Follow Liz on Twitter or Like her Author Page on Facebook.