It’s usually the stranger, the foreigner, who see a nation’s flaws, fears and foibles more clearly than the natives. Think Lionel Shiver, American author now long-time London resident, the late Robert Hughes, essayist and art critic who fearlessly flayed artists on both sides of the Atlantic and now, South African-born Amanda Craig has published her beautifully-crafted new novel The Lie of the Land.
The title is an ironic pun (the British are fond of puns) but it’s also an ironic comment on the real-estate miracle that has made every home-owner in London, no matter how modest or decrepit the roof over her head, a multi-millionaire, for, as every Russian oligarch knew, London real estate was where to park the roubles.
But for Londoners, like Craig’s suddenly-poor couple, Charlotte and Quentin Bredlin, desperate to divorce but unable to do so because they have both lost their jobs, she as an architect, he a journalist, their home is suddenly an encumbrance, even sold, it will not provide enough for them to buy separately, and resume their worldly, middle-class lives.
Their solution is to rent the London house to Canadians and retreat to the West Country, to the Home Farm in Devon, where, it becomes evident, something truly awful took place before they arrived.
Don’t let the fact that Craig’s characters are English put you off reading Lie of the Land (Lottie is actually half-German, Quentin a quarter South African; both have complicated previous histories and a blended family). It’s the power of Craig’s writing that draws her readers in; this is the city vs the country, the poor and truly disadvantaged (Maddy, with a husband minus both legs from his soldiering stint in Afghanistan, must toil in Humbles pie factory since her case is not considered serious enough to warrant a little extra money in benefits) versus the suddenly-affluent, like Lottie’s mother Marta, whose British husband had the nous to buy a run-down terrace in unfashionable London, now worth six million pounds.
Unwilling, hating each other, the Bredlins must still carry on as a couple at Home Farm, parents to their small daughters and Xan, Lottie’s mixed-race teenage son, whose dreams of university have been halted with the family’s move to the West Country.
This could be set in Sydney, but instead, set in England; it holds the same values and traps for humans on life’s journey. Craig is at her best describing the Shipcott country folk the ageing rock star with his Australian wife, Sally and Peter Verity, farmers refusing to be moved from their land, the hardy, willing Polish girls who keep the Humbles Pies production line moving:
The lamb struggles, until the man retrieves a pair of electric prongs from a bucket. These are put on either side of its head, conveying an electric current which stuns it into collapse, so that, with its heart still beating and its legs twitching, it has its throat cut. It must be alive when this happens, because all meat must be halal so that Muslims will buy it, even if most Britons would rather it didn’t have this additional bit if suffering. Blood sprays everywhere, dyeing the lamb’s head and forelegs crimson, and its eyes glaze. A minute later, it is hoisted by its hind legs onto a hook, and its woolly hide is pulled off, like a jumper over a child’s head. The red carcass dangling down is wholly anonymous, and ready. The belly is swiftly sliced and the hot entrails removed. Finally, the carcass is inspected, approved, stamped. Life has been rendered into meat. It is calm, efficient, relentless.
The Lie of the Land is about life and death, but also about love and hope.
Reading it may make you feel more optimistic about the state of the world.
The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig is published by Little, Brown.
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