Our House: Louise Candlish on 5 Memorable Houses in Fiction
A novel blooming with menace, deception and unreliable storytellers, Louise Candlish's latest novel, Our House, is set to become one of the most talked-about novels of 2018. It's also a novel which has property - our obsession with it, our need to protect it, our investment, both financial and emotional, in it - at its heart. Here, the author introduces the book and selects five of her own favourite novels where houses are more than just bricks and mortar.
It’s not a spoiler to say the house in Our House is stolen from its owner – we learn this in the first few pages, along with Fi’s pronouncement that her husband Bram must be the criminal. Readers are responding with terror to this tale of middle-class property fraud, just as I did when I imagined it, while critics say it’s a new genre of fiction called ‘property porn thriller’.
I wrote the novel to entertain, but also as a cautionary tale. Why is losing our home the worst thing we can imagine? Because we’re obsessed with its monetary value, that’s why; we’ve invested too much power in its economic heft. (Me too, by the way.) The deepening housing crisis has created a sense of personal financial jeopardy that didn’t exist twenty years ago. Now, if you’re lucky enough, old enough, rich enough to get on the property ladder, you must cling on for dear life, even if the world is kicking at your knuckles.
Sometimes I think if there were a government land grab policy and we were each given identical units in state-sponsored residences, we’d take years to rebuild our individual identities. We’re used to our homes defining us and, in recent years, in cases like Fi and Bram Lawson, supporting us. ‘The house had earned more in capital growth than we made from our salaries,’ Fi comments. ‘It was the family’s primary breadwinner, our benign master.’
If using cybercrime and emotional manipulation to wrest forever houses from the middle classes feels scarily zeitgeisty (I never imagined the news reports would proliferate the way they have) , it’s actually only the methods in Our House that are new. In fact, houses have been places of peril in our fiction for centuries: haunted, left in the owner’s will to a rival, prone to physical decay. When a novelist leads you through the door of a nice old house, never, ever assume you are in a safe place.
Capital by John Lanchester
A source of inspiration for Our House, this epic, state-of-the-city novel nails what property has done to Londoners in the 21st century: dislocate and divide. By 2007, just before the crash, the inhabitants of Pepy’s Road in south London, including the entitled Blounts, have struck gold. ‘Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner.’
But by the time the book closes, there are losers aplenty.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Surely the most celebrated stately home in twentieth-century literature, Brideshead Castle is the aristocratic pile where Charles Ryder believes himself to be ‘very near heaven’ and his memories of his time with the charming and tormented Flyte clan begin squarely with place, not people. ‘I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made,’ he explains. Is it possible that in the UK in 2018, we regard men as something less than the buildings they get the local estate agent in to value?
Howard’s End by EM Forster
The passionate attachment Ruth Wilcox has to her house feels as relevant today as it must have done when Forster was writing, during a period of great societal and cultural tension. Finding a home, a place of true belonging, is crucial to his characters’ emotional well being. After Mrs Wilcox’s death, Howard’s End is the source of ethical dilemma and the setting of terrible tragedy, but it also, in the end, is a place of reunion and healing. I love the line when Margeret Schlegel asks Mr Wilcox, ‘Aren’t you ever amused at the solemnity with which we middle classes approach the subject of houses?’
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The novel that gave us castles in the air and prison walls both real and metaphorical also features the complete collapse of a London house – that of the righteous Mrs Clennam. She suffers bodily and mental shut-down almost immediately afterwards. Now we’re in the era of over-renovated opened-out iceberg homes – sometimes developed sans planning permission – and when we hear of one going boom and falling in on itself, we like to hope it’s taken the owners’ narcissism down with it.
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
I’m a huge Cusk fan. This wincingly honest portrayal of suburban families is full of brutal, tragic middle-class moments, like the one when Amanda understands from the other mums’ reactions that her kitchen is too large: ‘They had knocked through until they had created not space but emptiness’. There is also the most perfect understanding of what a car means to the stay-at-home parent: ‘Her car was her true companion’. I quote that line constantly because I feel exactly like that about my car. In the suburbs, our cars are almost as important as our houses.