I spotted Jon Godden’s name on a book that she co-wrote with her sister, and I was curious to know more. I learned that her real name was Ruth, that she was much less prolific that he sister, and much less driven by her nature or by her circumstances, but the she had published a handful of novels. Any book called ‘The House by the Sea’ would have caught my eye – I love books centred around houses, I love the sea – but this one was set in Cornwall as well, and that made it irresistible.
I also learned that the Godden sisters were very different writers.
“The house was a firm white shape on the changing colours of the field. Under the canopy of cloud the light was very clean and pure; every detail of cliff and field and house stood out sharply; the pales of the fence, and oblong of red earth where the front garden was going to be, even the aerial on the roof. She put her parcels on the step and say down on the stile to rest. ‘How real it looks,’ she thought. ‘There it sits as large as life, complete to the last detail, as real as money can make it. But it’s not surprising that it seems to me, for all its solidness, to be a dream. What is it after all except a dream come true.'”
When her father died, leaving her a small legacy, Edwina was free for the first time. She wasn’t tied to him, she could shake off the rather domineering friend she had shared a flat with during the war, and live as she wanted. And what she wanted was a new life in a new place where she could be entirely herself, and a home where she could live as she wanted, and have her own things around her.
It was lovely to watch Edwina quietly taking pleasure in things others take for granted. Using her favourite china, choosing exactly what she wanted in the village shop, walking her dog along the cliffs … It was lovely, but I could also see that Edwina was brittle, that her world could so easily be rocked, because she was still the woman who had been dominated by others for so many years.
It was clear that something was going to happen. And something did.
An injured man, a fugitive, stumbled into Edwina’s porch. He saw what she was, that she lived alone in an isolated house, some way from a community that barely knew her, and so he decided that he would stay as long as he needed to, that she would not give him away.
Edwina becomes his hostage, but, as they coexist in her home, their situation draws something out of her and something out of him. A relationship grows between them, but that relationship is as brittle as Edwina, and as time passes, as Edwina learns more about Ross, it is inevitable that it will break.
When it does break, when one of them forces the situation, the consequences are shattering, and Edwina’s dream seems broken too ….
This is not a comfortable book. The feeling of uncertainty that was present and the start of the book quickly grows into something rather more menacing, and it is difficult to feel entirely sympathetic towards either of the protagonists. Yes, they are fallible, complex, believable human beings, but they are largely responsible for their own failings, for failing to take responsibility for themselves and their lives soon enough. I could feel a degree of compassion, of course I could, but I couldn’t warm to either of them.
The story works though, because Jon Godden understood the psychology of her characters and of their relationship, and she drew out the full complexity of their situation. Edwina was brave, she pushed the situation, she drew Ross’s story out of him. But she lacked the confidence, the judgement, the social skills, all of the things that people whose lives have been dominated by others lack. And, though she couldn’t admit it, she found something that her life lacked in her relationship with Ross. It also revealed truths that she had never found the courage to acknowledge.
It’s difficult to explain but I understood completely when I was safe in the hands of an author who clearly understood the importance of nuances, significant moments, and telling details. That made the situation, and the complex relationship, for all it was a little contrived, utterly compelling. The story played out beautifully, and the setting really made the story sing. The house itself was wonderful; it lived and breathed, I could see it, I could feel its oppressive atmosphere; such a contrast to the Cornish coast outside.
‘The House by the Sea’ held me from start to finish.