Joanna Kavenna, Come to the Edge (2012)
Last week, I went to the launch of the new Best European Fiction 2013 anthology; I was struck by a comment made there by the Welsh writer Robert Minhinnick before he gave his reading: that he was less interested in what a story was ‘about’ than in what it sounded like. Sure enough, there was indeed a distinctive and captivating rhythm to his delivery; it seemed to me quite a different experience from that of reading words on a page.
I was reminded of hearing Janice Galloway reading one of her stories at ShortStoryVille a few years ago. I’d read one of Galloway’s collections not long before, but that hadn’t prepared me for this. It wasn’t simply that she was reading in the Scottish accent of her narrator (something I could only ever approximate in my mind); it was that she was able to inhabit that narrative voice in a way that just wasn’t possible for me sitting on my own with a book. I can think of several other occasions when a text has been transformed for me by hearing it read aloud – transformed in a way that is hard to capture in words.
So, how to describe the experience of reading a book like Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge, which seems almost made to be spoken, and where so much of the affect is cumulative? Well, let’s see. Kavenna’s unnamed narrator has been abandoned by her husband; feeling disillusioned with her comfortable suburban life, she answers a newspaper ad to be the helping-hand on a widow’s farm, and finds herself driving up to Cumbria. The widow is Cassandra White, a larger-than-life character with forthright views on modern life (she detests most of it, from plastic food packaging, to bread, even soap). She promptly puts the narrator to work – dirty, back-breaking work.
The first chapter of Come to the Edge shows a vision of rural apocalypse: guns firing, houses burning, helicopters approaching. The bulk of the novel is the story of how that came about. The seed is planted when a couple of long-standing local residents are evicted so their house can be sold on. Cassandra decides to ‘resettle’ them in the well appointed, but rarely occupied, second home of a banker. A thriving resettlement programme is soon underway, but always with the nagging possibility that the owners of those second homes could return at any moment…
In the back of my mind when reading Come to the Edge was a comment I heard Joanna Kavenna make last year: that she was writing as though her characters didn’t have the usual inhibitions. The resulting book is darkly comic, as Cassandra pushes things ever further; and of course there’s an element of satire on contemporary aspirational lifestyles. But it seems to me there’s also a cautionary tale here about becoming too entrenched in a given viewpoint: as the first chapter shows, the valley doesn’t do all that well out of Cassandra’s high-minded ideals; and the narrator eventually realises that she’s the one doing all the leg-work.
I loved Kavenna’s prose in this novel, and I’ve thought about quoting from it; but so much is gained from context and repetition that I don’t know whether an isolated snippet can really convey what I want to. That’s why I would also think this book would be great read aloud: that momentum would build, the characters’ voices would ring out… Then again, there’s such an energy to Come to the Edge that it almost shouts from the page.