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Come to the Edge

by Joanna Kavenna

The author of INGLORIOUS, THE BIRTH OF LOVE, and THE ICE MUSEUM has excelled herself.

The book is satirical and as such it might have had a limited readership. But satire, like fiction, is only as good as it is believable. COME TO THE EDGE solicits and engages the reader:" it could happen, in fact it should happen, perhaps it did happen, or perhaps it is happening right now, away in the depths of the Home Counties, far from the notice of the Media", (which in any case, is so given up to its B List celebrities, its deep-carpeted halls, and its game shows that it would barely lift a microscope to anything so unusual). Kavenna's prose is original and powerful enough to convince a cynic.

This is a tale of two women, with a scattering of men. Cassandra White (to whom the book is dedicated) reigns, a queen in her castle, which is really a stinking old farmhouse. It is freezing cold and damp, a happy home to mice and unattractive insects. She is a beautiful young widow, six feet tall, with a shock of orange hair, "blood orange, setting-sun orange". She is owner and country house hostess of a very large dump. Room upon mouldering room full of heirlooms, antique furniture and frowning full length portraits of her ancestors give on to tall windows which look out on miles of fields and woods. She owns one remaining cow, two goats, some ducks and chickens, and an excellent kitchen garden. All that is left of her family china is three chipped cups and a stained teapot. Her kitchen is a barn of detritus and mould. A double-barrelled shotgun and some very sharp knives lie on the kitchen table, daylight creeps in through deep and dirty windows. Outside across the yard is the thunderbox, the only lavatory on the place.

Cassandra does not eat bread: "grain" she says, "is a hoarder's commodity. An appalling thing. You hoard it and then you create armies to protect you and your grain. You create big surveillance towers to watch the grain. Those ancient grain cities thousands of years before Christ, that's what happened to them. A big tower, full of soldiers, with an eye on the top, watching everyone." She feels much the same about things like oil (she burns only wood that she has hacked from the forest), mains water (don't ask), electricity (oil lamps and candles) and supermarkets. She eats what her garden and her pens and ponds provide, or what poachers have gathered on the hill.

It is to this regime that our narrator comes as guest, or unpaid help. She is a young woman, gently reared and educated, devoted to her Magimix and her microwave. Her spotless suburban house, her matching sheets and towels, her whirlpool bath, her dinner parties, her oversized wine glasses and her tasteful ranks of white crockery are her daily life. She loves her husband, her car and her job. But she is escaping from a crisis (infertility) in her marriage. She Needs to Get Away. She Needs Her Space. Like so many city folk, she thinks the countryside is what she needs. Peace and Quiet. Well, no, that is hardly fair. In fact her husband has run off with another woman.

She answers an advert she reads one day: Wanted, companion in rural life. Can be male or female preferably not completely young, but not decrepit either. Widow living alone on farm needs help with sprawling property and various plans for improvement. Ample room for lodging. No stipend but no expenses -- food included, bills paid. Idyllic setting, but hard work required. Apply to Cassandra White.

It is superb, divine storytelling. The dialogue in the book is lively, crisp and telling. The violence is imaginative and essential to the narrative. The sex is blasphemous, but would make the Pope smile.. The story is absorbing: your cup of tea will go cold while you turn page after page after page after page after page...

COME TO THE EDGE is well timed, coming in the year that squatters are threatened with eviction and even gaol if they occupy the empty houses owned by speculators and capitalists.

Published by Quercus, 288pp.

Paula McMaster

Read our interview with Joanna Kavenna.


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