A sense of place
Lionel Shriver, the author of Property, gives her top five novels exploring notions of ownership
(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.