This book starts at the end, then backtracks to the beginning of it all. It is a remarkable tale told by an anonymous narrator who leaves her deadly predictable life for one that ends in fire and flight.
When her marriage collapses our narrator answers an advertisement for a companion in rural life. The little delicate old woman she expects to meet turns out to be this:
She is possibly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She is six feet tall and she has a shock of orange hair, blood orange setting-sun red,
Our narrator is in for a bigger shock however. Being a woman who likes her suburban comforts she is appalled by Cassandra’s ‘dump’ of a house. No microwaves or magi-mixes, indeed no electricity at all:
…the inventory of Cassandra White’s kitchen would read:
Three chipped cups and a stained teapot, relicts of an ancient tea set
A mound of detritus
A double-barrelled shotgun
Her bed is cold and lumpy and the thunderbox is ‘unnecessarily vile.’
And it’s not just the cold, the never ending back-breaking work, the lack of hot water, but Cassandra’s unconventional views on most things that she has to cope with. Cassandra eats meat, killed and disembowelled by her own hand, but she is violently opposed to grains, in fact she sees grain as one of deep causes of enmity between tribes for the last few thousand years.
But if Cassandra hates grain she is very much in favour of manure:
It’s absurd we use animal manure but not human manure. That’s just squeamishness, we don’t want to accept that we are also beasts.
The narrator’s life shrinks down to mud and turnips. In her harangues Cassandra reveals her low opinion of her companion’s previous life. Cassandra is anti-University, indeed any formal education, she is anti-sugar, anti-supermarkets. In her previous life in her view, the narrator ‘trashed the earth.’
Why doesn’t she leave then, in view of this life of relentless drudgery? Possibly because she is passive and has nowhere else to go, but we can also feel her coming under the spell of Cassandra, who is a massive life force and not content to accept that life’s injustices can’t be changed. One day the narrator experiences this moment:
I stand up to ease my aching back and as I’m standing there rubbing my spine and thinking how I would like to grind Cassandra’s face in the dirt I see the sun breaking through the clouds and sending a great shaft of light onto the side of a mountain, and all the trees suddenly clear and vibrant in the sunshine, and I feel something deep in my guts.
Something about the life of self-sufficiency gets below her conventional reactions and she begins to feel freer.
Then Cassandra reveals the scheme she has all the while been planning.
There is a period of standoff where our narrator resists:
All the while we are unspeaking, like a pair of shabby nuns, the last nuns in the nunnery, left to say nothing to each other until death wastes us.
But she is unable to withstand Cassandra for long, and soon becomes an active participant in her wild scheme. We won’t reveal the scheme but it does involve a radical solution to the local housing problem and as it develops events become nail-bitingly tense.
Joanna Kavenna is a new discovery for me, and what a fantastic discovery. I read a review of her latest book A Field Guide to Reality, which is described in The Guardian as A quirky quest for the nature of cosmic truth in an alternative Oxford and that led me to grab the closest one I could lay my hands on. That was Come to the Edge and I read it in one sitting.
This book is original, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. Kavenna is a highly accomplished writer with a wide range. I have just ordered her non-fiction book, The Ice Museum, nominated for several prizes, which is both a travel story set in Norway, Iceland and Estonia, and a historical look at the search for Thule.
Then there’s also Inglorious, about a woman overwhelmed by grief after the death of her mother, and The Birth of Love, which begins with the story of Dr Ignatz Semmelwiess, (always a hero of mine) continues into the present with a woman planning a home birth, and into the future where Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy.
We have read Inglorious now and sadly found it disappointing to say the least. A heroine so passive she quickly loses our sympathy, a train of events which is highly predictable, but not at all engaging. Strange that the solipsistic Inglorious won the Orange Prize in 2008 (it was described as a kind of mingling of chick-lit and Dosteovsky) while Come to the Edge from 2012, a vastly more wide-ranging, funny and provocative work, seems to be less appreciated.Except by us.