Twins Morwenna and Corwin have grown up on the Devon coast with their unhappy parents, John and Valerie, and their paternal grandfather, Matthew. They are eighteen when the novel begins and their father has just fallen off a cliff to his death. Morwenna, the narrator of Julia Rochester’s compelling novel The House at the Edge of the World says “He was pissing into the brine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.”
Morwenna draws us into a gothic landscape where people use language with scalpel-like precision and the characters are not particularly sympathetic.
Take Morwenna herself. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a first-person narrator that I didn’t really like. Morwenna is prickly and often cruel. Her employer that eighteenth summer tells her she is “a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed little smartarse.” He’s not wrong. The only person she seems to even remotely care about is Corwin, her beautiful and enigmatic twin.
After the death of their father, Corwin leaves Thornton and heads to India where he says he is going to “move water.” Morwenna goes to London, first to school and then to a job as a book-binder. It’s incongruous to her personality – the care she takes to make these beautiful hand-crafted books with their embossed leather covers and beautiful end-papers.
Then Morwenna tells us “For seventeen years after my father’s death nothing much happened and then a pigeon flew through my window.” It’s a sign, surely. Corwin comes home and the siblings, again in each other’s orbit, start to pull at the thread of their family history.
Much of this history is captured in the map their grandfather, Matthew, has been painting for as long as they can remember. The map captures both the landscape and the history of their ancestral home and soon becomes an important clue in the mystery of Morwenna’s father’s life and death.
Even more intriguing to me is the relationship between Morwenna and her brother. To say it’s complicated would be the understatement of the year. His arrival back in England after a long absence offers Morwenna only “one last lazy unspoiled afternoon” before Matthew’s map and their childhood home spills its secrets.
I really liked The House at the Edge of the World. The language is beautiful. There is an element of idioglossia between Morwenna and Corwin. They are endlessly compelling even if you don’t particularly like them. The same is true for the rest of the characters. Only Valerie, when she finally moves away from Thornton, seems to manage a modicum of happiness.
I am not satisfied with the way I am talking about this novel. Gah! It’s probably because I don’t want to give anything away and I also have all these conflicting emotions about it. So let me just say this: