Bailey's Prize, books, Reading, Women Writers

Julia Rochester’s “The House at the Edge of the World”

“I felt nothing, except the desire to know why, so strong that it was physical.”

“The House at the Edge of the World” is wild, feral, and twisty. What starts as a tragic anecdote laced with wry humor soon turns into a novel of intrigue and mystery, and it is an addictive force.

Morwenna and Corwin Venton are eerily, dangerously close twins, who begin the story with their father’s drunken fall off a cliff and into the ether.  Raised on cliff-top ancestral grounds, the pair worship their sage grandfather Matthew, respect their silent father, mockingly tolerate their mother, and find little use for the rest of humanity. They are elitist, isolationist, sarcastic, and merciless. MorwenCdBSqgUWoAAIj4e-2na is nearly misanthropic; leading up to her graduating high school and leaving for university, she admits that “[f]or the last two years I had been dreaming of nothing but the filthy city where I would know no one and no one would know me. I was going to wear anonymity like a well-cut trench-coat and conduct life in angular uban grey tones.” Corwin, meanwhile, feels compelled to save the world, running from people to people and place to place never truly embracing anyone or anything.

Julia Rochester’s descriptors are absolutely brilliant. In brief, pithy phrases, she is able to create a living, breathing character with depth, agency, and charisma.

“Mum wasn’t part of the house. We were all organic to the house, which was organic to the landscape, and she was a foreign body. The sofa represented my mother’s failure to be a good wife and adapt to Thornton, and my father’s failure to be a good husband and adapt Thornton to her.”

“The kitchen garden was beautiful, monastically calm, divided into medieval squares. This was what my father’s soul would look like in image: neatly laid out, not a weed in sight, rot and canker at bay, a billowy herbal-medicinal softness around the edges and packed with nutritious goodness.”

“My father was a still man He moved in the same way he talked: only the necessary minimum.”

“There was a permanent whiff of the locker room about Bob Marsden, a sticky stench of lewd boasts exchanged and female parts appraised and compared.”

The story is truly Morwenna’s; she is its brilliant narrator and, begrudgingly, its ruthless heroine.

“I had woken up feeling clear-headed and vengeful and incandescent with knowledge.”

Her journey seems almost like an alien being working its way through human emotions and societal mores. Her self-isolation and insular upbringing has left her ill-equipped, but her stumbling is, somehow, charming in its totality and in its vulnerability. She carefully chooses her words and her steps, gingerly approaching others.

“[I]t is extremely difficult to know if and when to intervene in the course of things and it is not something that I take lightly. I am a cautious time traveller.”

“‘What do you mean by “happy”?’ There was that word, deceptively innocuous, unleashed. I suddenly discerned its full load of implicit rights and responsibilities incurred and failed duties.”

“I always thought of hatred as a hot emotion, but this is very cold …very heavy. I know now why people talk about hearts turning to stone.”

When she has once again infuriated and baffled her boyfriend Ed, she relates that he “sighed a patient sigh. He was counting to ten. I thought about all the hundreds and thousands of tens he had counted to since we met. They stretched out into a long, long line, disappearing off into outer space. But then they re-formed to make clumps of pinpricks in time – tiny voids, which merged together to form an awful soul-sucking black hole.”

Julia Rochester takes her time, simultaneously presenting the reader with encapsulated profiles and pithy quotes while deliberately stretching out the mystery, one tiny moment at a time. Her description of how the characters grow apart is an apt metaphor for how insidious her story is:

 “It didn’t happen quickly. It was like outgrowing skin: as though we left on the coast path tissue-thin casts of ourselves that desiccated and broke up in the wind.”

I was thoroughly engaged with her writing, her story, and the world she had created from the opening bell to the bitter (bitter) end. The Bailey’s Women’s Prize judges have found a gem and I am so grateful that they have brought it to light.


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