The novel is by nature a slow-moving beast, excellently suited to chewing over the important things in life, much less so to moving nimbly through a fast-changing world. As events spin past us at head-whirling velocity, this can be a problem: people are thirsty for explanation that goes deeper than the news agenda, and they are turning to timely TV adaptations and non-fiction rather than fiction. New novels even by established literary authors sell less than they used to; I organised a series of book events recently, and while tickets for the non-fiction authors were in high demand, sales for fiction events were notably slow.
Perhaps partly in response, some valiant efforts have been made by novelists and publishers to pick up the speed. Ali Smith’s Autumn was set in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and was published only three months after the real event (the usual time lapse from submitting a manuscript to publication is more like a year). Howard Jacobson’s Trump novel, Pussy, was published in April, having been written in a “fury of disbelief” after the US election. The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig takes a different approach to the same problem.
This is no rush job; it took her seven years to write, and yet it is undeniably a “state-of-the-nation” novel that engages with issues such as the housing crisis, the collapse of the middle class, and the gulf in understanding between city and country, all through the prism of one family’s experience. It bears comparison to John Lanchester’s Capital (2012), another novel that explored the complexity of life as we know it in an accessible way.
Quentin and Lottie Bredin can’t afford a divorce, so they rent out their London home and move to Shipcott, a small village in Devon, where they can live for next to nothing. Better still, they find a tumbledown cottage, Home Farm, which is mysteriously cheap to rent even by local standards.
Quentin, a boorish journalist, bears up by nipping back to London every other weekend to visit his girlfriend. Lottie, meanwhile, grows to love how their two young daughters can roam free in the fields and visit the beach after school. Her eldest child, Xan, finds fitting in more of a challenge: not only is he the only mixed-race man in the village, but he is also grieving his failure to get into Oxbridge. The greatest aspiration all the other young people in Shipcott seem to have is to work at the Humbles pie factory, where Xan ends up on the production line.
Craig writes with intelligence and humour and she is curious about the world. Her observations ring true, across settings as diverse as a literary party riven with status anxiety (“‘You don’t recognise me, do you,’ said the man. ‘I’m your agent’”), to the pie factory (where the foreman roars at Xan, “Now let’s see if you can work like a Pole”), to the slaughterhouse, where a hide is pulled off a carcass “like a jumper over a child’s head”. There are minor but thought-provoking strands on modern architecture, childlessness and celebrity. In short, there is a wealth of material here, and Craig commands it admirably.
Less successful is the overall structure of the book, which – again like Lanchester’s Capital – relies on a clumsy detective story for its impetus. Here the mystery revolves around Home Farm, where, the story hints heavily, dark deeds have taken place. Why did the previous tenant vacate the property? Why is it so cheap? And what is that strange granite bath behind the back stairs with an ominous metal hook hanging over it? “Why,” our omniscient narrator asks portentously, as Quentin looks at a flock of sheep through a train window, “is he filled with foreboding?”
I couldn’t decide whether this strand of the plot was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, or whether we were supposed to believe in it – and I’m not sure Craig had decided, either. A linear story is necessary to hold together a complex, multilayered novel such as this one; the difficulty is that Craig isn’t as interested in it as she is in her social commentary. It’s a shame that such a well-observed book should end up feeling rather contrived.
The Lie of the Land
Little, Brown, 419pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague