There’s something irresistible about a state-of-the-nation novel, even if that nation has shifted cataclysmically since the novel was conceived. This isn’t the first book in that vein Amanda Craig has written – I remember enjoying Hearts and Minds which explored the lives of immigrants in London a few years back. Two characters from that novel take centre stage in The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.
Made redundant from her job as an architect, thanks to Britain’s post-financial crisis recession, Lottie is searching for a way out of her marriage. She and Quentin share a house in London bought long before property prices became stratospheric. She finds a Devon farmhouse with a surprisingly low rent, lets the London house and takes off with Quentin, their two young daughters and her mixed-race teenage son reluctantly in tow. The plan is to sell the house once the economy has recovered so that she and Quentin can each buy a flat. Everyone hates the countryside: the dilapidated farmhouse offends Lottie’s professional sensibilities and she misses her mother; Rosie and Stella miss their friends; Xan is bored to tears and the butt of racist remarks; Quentin uses the proceeds from his column deriding rural life to pay for a cleaner about whom the girls are distinctly suspicious and frequently takes off for London, ostensibly to cultivate his contacts but staying with his new girlfriend. As the year rolls on, each of them finds a way to cope without the glossy, sophisticated charms of London. Even Quentin occupies himself, speculating about writing the biography of their landlord, an ageing rock star who rejoices in the name Gore Tore. Alongside the Bredins’ story, another one unfolds. It seems that Home Farm’s previous tenant was murdered, a gruesome crime still unsolved.
If you’re looking for a piece of engrossing, intelligent fiction, The Lie of the Land is just the ticket. Craig handles her themes deftly, covering a multitude of issues afflicting twenty-first century British society within the framework of a rollicking good story. Her portrayal of rural poverty and deprivation, unnoticed by the tourists on whom the local economy depends, blows a hole through the much-cherished idea of the English pastoral idyll. Marriage is put under the microscope and men, even the apparently devoted, are found wanting. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel: Cold Comfort Farm came to mind when the grisly murder appeared on the horizon, and a few pages later Craig gives it a nod with a quote. Her characters are nicely three-dimensional, Quentin neatly dodging redemption when he tells his mother close to the end of the novel ‘without selfishness, I’ll have a life of misery and boredom’. The murder thread is satisfyingly – if a little melodramatically – resolved and the ending is a perfect fit. The book’s message was summed up for me when Lottie tells Xan ‘Maybe nobody gets what they believe should be theirs, but just getting a bit of it is worthwhile. Just a bit is more than most ever get’. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.