The sea all day

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

Julia Rochester The House at the Edge of the World
Penguin 2016 (2015)

A man falls from a high point into the sea and is lost. I am reminded of the myth of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who on his way to freedom flew too close to the sun so that its heat melted the wax holding together the feathers of his artificial wings and he fell from the heavens. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting on this subject famously shows his fall as unnoticed by ordinary people such as a ploughman, a shepherd and an angler.

But when John Venton falls off a cliff somewhere facing the North Atlantic on the southwestern peninsula of England his absence is very definitely noticed by his family — by his wife Valerie, by his twin children Morwenna and Corwin, by his father Matthew — and by his friend Bob, who was too drunk at the time to notice what happened. The impact that this disappearance (no body is ever found) has on the evidently dysfunctional family is far-reaching, stretching years into the future; and the time comes when the twins, who were of school-leaving age when their father disappeared, start to question the received wisdom.

Julia Rochester’s debut novel is a real corker. The narrator is Morwenna who certainly doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She goes to work as a bookbinder in London, while her brother Corwin travels the world to work on projects helping local communities. John’s wife remarries John’s best friend Bob and moves out of the family home (Thornton: a memory of Brontë’s Thornfield Hall, perhaps?) leaving John’s father Matthew to manage on his own. Morwenna’s eccentric grandfather has been painting a giant map of the area with Thornton at its centre: the six-by-six-foot canvas is based on a circular area with a radius of twelve miles. Imagine something like the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi, complete with “wandering saints and wronged women and poet priests; its contradictory seasons, snowdrops and roses, fruit and blossom, spring cubs and autumn hunters.” It is this map that dominates the narrative as much as the outside landscape, against which all the drama takes place and which provides the final clue that precipitates the denouement.

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

John Venton is likened to Sir Galahad, but like that pure, idealised Arthurian knight he is a bit of an enigma. What really motivates him, and how is it that he could be so careless on that fateful night? Galahad is known as the figure who went in quest of the Holy Grail, but for the Venton siblings their quest — over seventeen years and more — is to find out what happened to their father. When Corwin eventually gets ‘compassion fatigue’ in his career and Morwenna virtually engineers a failed relationship we realise that they and the other participants are really searching for love: whether parent-child, sister-brother or husband-wife we know that the task will be long and arduous and that some will never succeed.

Julia Rochester’s characters are so well-drawn that we feel they could be real — believable humans with gentleness and talents, but also fierceness and foibles. Spiky Morwenna is too often superficial, just as she binds books without any curiosity about their contents; but she is not afraid to speak her mind. Corwin appears to exhibit strength of character by helping the disadvantaged around the work but, when it comes to facing his demons, his courage fails him; yet he worries away at things like a terrier with a rabbit. Matthew, rather like his missing son, retreats into his own inner world as those on the autistic spectrum often do; and yet he has the artistic talent to recreate that world in a masterpiece that is his consuming obsession.

Like the sea and the land which bisect the map that Matthew makes, everyone is composed of near equal parts of strengths and weaknesses; in common with this house at the edge of the world they too face the inscrutable ocean, but are confined — whether they like it or not — to the land. As the Robert Frost poem that prefaces the novel has it, “The people along the sand | All turn and look one way. | They turn their back on the land. | They look at the sea all day.” Being unable to fathom its depths doesn’t stop these people watching, watching, watching.

Like all good stories The House at the Edge of the World has this quality: the ability to get under the skin. The reader may wonder whether, after the watery baptism that opens the book, the main protagonists are ever going to make new lives — and new loves — for themselves; for their sakes we may certainly hope so. Ubi caritas? Will they ever find it?

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9 thoughts on “The sea all day

  1. Ooh, I really like the sound of this book Chris. A mystery wrapped inside the lives of some intriguing sounding characters. I will definitely keep an eye open for this one. Thanks Chris 🙂

    1. I think you may like this, Lynn, it feels very much like your sort of thing with twists and turns and mystery hinted at, but all firmly grounded in characters you feel you may well have come across yourself.

      In fact, pretty much what you said, now that I read it again!

      1. It does sound good and I do like a mystery. Have you read Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey? It’s written from the POV of a dementia sufferer desperately trying to remember something awful that happened years earlier. Not only does she have to convince people who think she’s a dotty old bird that something’s wrong, but she has to struggle through her own illness, fight her own brain for memories she’s losing. I thought it was very good, especially at depicting her scattered thoughts. Just reminded me of the way you described this story – a mystery hidden in a family

        1. No, I’ve not come across the Healey, though from your description it sounds vaguely familiar — perhaps from a review I’ve read in the Guardian. Thanks for the recommendation!

          1. Could be – I think they definitely reviewed it and it was one of those books the publisher may have paid a big advance for (like The Miniaturist) as it was pushed very hard. It is good though 🙂

    1. I remember reading a 1999 novel by Michael Frayn which, in its title Headlong, seemed to imply a reference to Landscape with the Fall of Icarus though it’s actually about a fictional long-lost painting of Brueghel and its fate in the 20th century. I’m not sure that quite fits the bill you describe. It’s a great composition though, well worth a hour-long discourse!

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