A sense of place

Lionel Shriver, the au­thor of Prop­erty, gives her top five nov­els ex­plor­ing no­tions of own­er­ship

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THE PAST

(2016) Houses are never just houses. Their own­ers lay claim to the past, and rare is the struc­ture that re­calls only happy times. In The Past, four grown chil­dren and their fam­i­lies de­scend on the ram­bling, di­lap­i­dated home of de­ceased grand­par­ents. It is per­haps their last idyll here if the chil­dren de­cide to sell, and a three-week sum­mer hol­i­day in the English coun­try­side is more than long enough to re­vive old quar­rels and gen­er­ate new ones. Hadley is adept at man­ag­ing her large, mem­o­rable cast, while deftly weav­ing the web of their re­la­tion­ships. With a rare gift, she writes well from the per­spec­tive of chil­dren; the younger two are se­cre­tive, du­plic­i­tous, and drawn to dark­ness. The de­scrip­tions of land­scape are so beau­ti­fully ren­dered that I ac­tu­ally wasn’t in­clined to skip them. The grand­par­ents’ bedrock mar­riage and strong com­mu­nity ties con­trast with frag­ile, peri­patetic lives: “What a com­pro­mised gen­er­a­tion theirs was,” thinks one sis­ter. “Ma­te­ri­ally they had so much, and yet they were haunted by this sen­sa­tion of ex­ist­ing in an af­ter­math, af­ter the best had passed.” THE LIE OF THE LAND

(2017) In this rich, widerang­ing novel, a cou­ple split by the hus­band’s in­fi­delity can­not af­ford to sell their house in Lon­don; the pro­ceeds would still not pur­chase two sep­a­rate new homes. In­stead, they must rent out their three-di­men­sional sav­ings ac­count, re­treat to a cheaper coun­try­side cot­tage and un­com­fort­ably share the same digs. Yet leav­ing the Lon­don house is a di­vorce of sorts, for “here they have thrown lively par­ties, taken deep baths, filled large fridges, and re­turned from hol­i­days with re­lief ... The house had been the third party in a charmed union.” The hec­tic van­i­ties of ur­ban liv­ing are set against hu­mil­ity of the far-from-bu­colic ru­ral Eng­land. Craig throws in a mur­der mys­tery, but her best ma­te­rial is sub­tler: “I got him to give up smok­ing; he could have given up spite.” Some of her finest pas­sages re­gard the grim nitty-gritty of raising sheep and work­ing at a pie fac­tory. In­evitably, ro­mance by real es­tate works its dis­tinctly mod­ern charms. CAP­I­TAL

(2012) John Lanch­ester’s char­ac­ters ei­ther work or live on a fic­tional Pepys Road in south Lon­don, an al­lu­sion to Sa­muel Pepys’s fa­mous 17th-cen­tury di­ary. But rather than plague and the Great Fire, Cap­i­tal records the con­tem­po­rary dis­as­ter — or so it seems to ex­cluded renters and new im­mi­grants — of the city’s soar­ing prop­erty prices. These res­i­dences were built for the lower-mid­dle class in the 1800s, but now: “Hav­ing a house in Pepys Road was like be­ing in a casino in which you were guar­an­teed to be a win­ner. If you al­ready lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich.” Lanch­ester’s in­ge­nious plot de­vice i s a post­card, s l i pped through let­ter slots one by one. Cus­tomised with pho­to­graphs of each mark’s house, its anony­mous mes­sage reads: “We Want What You Have”. Thus is ter­ror struck in the hearts of the haves in the face of all those re­sent­ful havenots glar­ing through the lace cur­tains at unattain­able safety and af­flu­ence. Sharp and panoramic, Cap­i­tal was also made into a bang-up minis­eries, if you’re feel­ing lazy. THE DEVIL I KNOW

(2012) Still more real es­tate — eter­nal source of avarice and tragedy. Dur­ing Ire­land’s crazed de­vel­op­ment binge, seem­ingly the whole coun­try got caught up in buy­ing and flip­ping prop­er­ties — un­til the mu­sic stopped, and ev­ery­one was left with dumpy houses and worth­less farm­land. The nar­ra­tor’s al­co­holism im­plies a par­al­lel be­tween the Celtic tiger’s gorg­ing on prop­erty and ad­dic­tion. When he fi­nally takes a look at one of the “farms” for which his com­pany paid through the nose, he finds “flat, fea­ture­less farm­land. No rivers, no moun­tains, no coast­line, no in­hab­i­tants, and not a whole lot of farm­ing, ei­ther.” On the map, “no X marks the spot to re­veal the chest of gold. If this was what they had man­aged to sell us in our own back­yard, God knows what we had pur­chased around the globe in our delir­ium.” This is dark eco­nomic fic­tion whose riches-to-rags roller­coaster is slightly sick­en­ing, but bit­ing and funny along the way. SAFEKEEPING

(2014) Jes­samyn Hope’s pro­tag­o­nist is inan­i­mate: a brooch of daz­zling artistry from the 14th cen­tury, with “ex­quis­ite, hand­made fil­i­gree” and “tiny pomegranates, that al­lu­sion to the Promised Land”. The brooch was hid­den dur­ing a Jew­ish pogrom stirred by the Black Death, reg­u­larly blamed on the Jews. In the present, the brooch has sur­vived the Holo­caust and landed in the hands of a heroin ad­dict, whose fam­ily has owned it for 700 years. Af­ter as­sault­ing a too-cu­ri­ous jew­eller, he flees New York for a kib­butz in Is­rael, hop­ing to b be­stow t the brooch on his cher­ished late grand­fa­ther’s lon­glost love. I’ve done a stint in a kib­butz, and Hope’s por­trayal of the for­eign vol­un­teers and their mot­ley mo­ti­va­tions rings true. She’s up on the di­vi­sions be­tween younger and older kib­butzniks, and re­al­is­tic about the move­ment’s ul­ti­mately un­work­able so­cial­ist pur­pose. Fol­low­ing the fate of the brooch is like watch­ing a game of old maid; its pos­ses­sion con­fers as much curse as charm. A fine win­dow on both present-day Is­rael and the coun­try’s more ide­al­is­tic man­i­fes­ta­tion at its found­ing.

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