I read it just two nights, before and after the award of the 2016 Man Booker prize. This book had been nominated for the Bailey's Women Prize for Fiction. Media articles about the Booker prize remind me about my inherent confusion about fiction. One article asks "When does fiction becomes literature?". My answer - it's when the publisher puts it forward for a literary award.
I enjoyed this book but have no idea why it counts as 'literature'. I used to read so-called chick lit when I was younger - what differentiates this from, say, one of Marian Keyes' masterpieces? Or, given there is a mystery in this, why isn't it in 'domestic noir' - except for the lack of noir?
It's a relatively short novel, without unnecessarily flowery vocabulary or convoluted sentence structures. It's a simple chronological narrative of lives lived mundanely. It contains no abstract or conceptual thinking, and the only sexual references are alluded to, and banal enough for a young teenager.
Perhaps what qualifies it for 'non-genre' is that the characters are unlikeable. In chick lit, you have to like the main protagonist and her main love interest (eventually). In crime and psychological, even if you don't like the main characters there must be something compelling in their personalities.
The story is told from the point of view of Morwenna, who, to put it bluntly, is a bitch. She's not even an interesting bitch. Just a self-centred woman of rather limited intelligence who considers herself a cut above because she has done reasonably well academically. She yells too often, lacks diplomacy, and uses people, but not in an interesting way.
The other main characters are her twin brother Corwin, who is pompous, her mother (a suburban housewife type frustrated by living in the country), the father who falls drunk off a cliff at the start of the book, and his father, Matthew, who lives entirely within a circle of 12 miles radius. He's supposed to be interesting and enigmatic, perhaps even mystic, but it would be difficult to find a duller individual in the whole of fiction.
That paragraph does the book a disservice. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that these people are really truly dreadful, but in a very boring non-sensational way. Narrow lives, narrow social circles, small thoughts, small experiences (even though Corwin has travelled the world as a development worker).
The book is lightly written. Its lack of reflection and self-analysis are a strength. Things happen, in a dull way, to move the story on. There is an actual plot here, although quite a thin one. Corwin and Morwenna set out to find out what happened, but don't find themselves or anything like that. There's some mention of the supernatural, devils and even Anglicanism, but the reader knows that the writer and the protagonists don't take them seriously. Part of local folklore, which gets a mention, but isn't a main driver of the book. Just like the local topology/geography. Important to the story but resting lightly on the chronology
In some ways it's an anti-novel: dull people, living dull lives with little self-awareness, finding an answer. Not thrilling or 'cliff hanging' (except in the most literal sense!). I really enjoyed reading it and I do admire how the writer has made this so light and sparing, when the temptation would be to introduce darkness, premonitions, disturbed minds, trauma and so on. So, quite odd, but definitely worth a read!