What happens when a middle class family from London relocates to rural Devon, taking all its emotional and other baggage with it?
Amanda Craig's wonderful novel begins as Quentin and Lottie Bredin - he's a journalist and she's an architect - lose their jobs and realise they'll need to rent out their London house and move somewhere a lot cheaper for at least a year. But this is not all that's wrong. Lottie is tired of Quentin's serial infidelity and wants a divorce.
Quentin doesn't want a divorce. Why can't Lottie be reasonable and understand that men have needs? As Lottie herself admits, he's never been violent, dirty or mean with money. He's clever, talented and good-looking, so why can't she shut her eyes to a few little indiscretions? But Lottie can't overlook Quentin's behaviour. She rents a house deep in the Devon countryside, rents out the London house and tells Quentin that if he insists on coming to Devon he'll be sleeping on the sofa.
The rented house in Devon turns out to be rotting hovel - cold, damp and draughty, it's infested with vermin, has a temperamental Rayburn, no central heating and a lavender-coloured bathroom. The Bredins soon learn that something very unpleasant happened there fairly recently, and that's why the rent is so reasonable. Who would want to live in an isolated dump where something so horrible took place, unless they had no choice?
This is a state-of-the-nation novel in which the reader meets a range of brilliantly imagined characters from all social classes and backgrounds, from local-boy-made-good royalty to the virtual slaves on zero hours contracts working in the nearby pie factory, from the busy health visitor who nurses a hopeless longing to the mixed-race boy whom some Devonians seem to believe can't possibly be English. Add some mysteries, cliffhangers and twists to the mix and this story becomes a compelling page-turner, constantly leaving the reader at a critical point to take up a different strand of the story. Almost everyone in the novel has secrets, good and bad. Some of the characters are saints while others are the worst of sinners: mad and bad and definitely dangerous to know.
The author clearly knows and loves Devon in all its incarnations, but she never sentimentalises it. She observes the casual racism of some of its inhabitants, paints a chilling picture of rural poverty, disappointment and despair, shows the reader that cruelty and wickedness can exist in the most beautiful of settings, and that - conversely - some people can be capable of amazing acts of self-sacrifice and love. Drawing all the threads of the story together, the author delivers a hugely satisfying ending.
This is a five star read.