The House at the Edge of the World is a daring novel in that it dares you to care about a group of characters who are selfish, self-absorbed and angry, and who essentially stay that way throughout the story. Julia Rochester’s clever novel is the story of a family mystery and its slow unraveling. Our narrator Morwenna Venton tells us about the death of her father John, the strange map that her grandfather Matthew has spend a lifetime drawing, and her dysfunctional relationships with her mother and with her twin brother Corwin. The overriding theme involves how we define our boundaries with family and with the larger world, and when/how/whether we can change them. This is one of those occasions when you might not like the narrator, who seems consumed by anger and cynicism, but you are interested in her story nonetheless.
The novel begins with adult Morwenna telling the reader about the death of her father in 1988 when she was 18. John Venton was 44 when he fell off a cliff late at night while taking a piss over the edge. In Morwenna’s estimation, “It was a stupid way to die.” John knew the terrain intimately, having spend his life in the small coastal village on the North Atlantic. But he was drunk and had spent the better part of the evening with his bandmate Bob, aka “Fuck off Bob,” whose memory of the events, despite his own hangover, is clear. Bob is distraught, as John was one of his oldest friends. John’s wife Valerie seems angry; the marriage was pretty rocky, and now Val can never “win” her arguments with John (according to Morwenna) and since John and Matthew hadn’t written out a will, the property at Thornton remains Matthew’s and then will belong to the children. Morwenna does not feel grief, at least not yet, and Corwin seems intent on doing the right things. Matthew, John’s father, seems to be suffering a silent sort of grief. Since no body was recovered, a memorial service is held, with most of the village, including Morwenna and Corwin’s school friends, in attendance. And then, there is a physical separation, with Corwin going off to India, Morwenna to school in London, other friends scattering about. Valerie eventually goes to live with a boyfriend, while Matthew continues to live at Thornton, working on his map.
The map is a central piece of the novel and of Venton family history. Matthew began creating the 6 foot by 6 foot canvas when he was young, after having been rejected for service in WWII. The map covers a 12 mile area around Thornton, and Matthew adds small details to it over the years, details related to local history and lore and the Venton family. The way Morwenna describes it, it seems an eccentric yet entertaining diversion for Matthew, but she feels that Matthew is waiting for her to “get” it. Meanwhile, Morwenna continues to have a combative relationship with her mother, who comes across as vindictive as her daughter. Morwenna works at a bindery, creating beautiful covers for books in disrepair; in her spare time, she works on books from the family library, which she sends to Corwin. Corwin has finished an engineering degree and spends his time in war zones trying to help the poor. He spends years away from Thornton, and Morwenna hopes that by sending him books, she will find a way to bind him back to home. Morwenna never reads the books she sends, but Corwin does read them, and after he suffers a kind of crisis of faith with his work, he moves back to Thornton to help take care of Matthew, who is dying, and to investigate his father’s death.
Part 3 of the novel focuses on Corwin’s obsession with his father’s death, and it is here that the real character of Venton family shines forth. The reader already knows that Morwenna is a bitch and that Morwenna knows she is a bitch, she just doesn’t care. She resents that Corwin is dragging her into his plans. Throughout the novel she refers to his manipulative side, which is a little bit funny since Morwenna is manipulative herself, but we can now see aspects of his character that hadn’t been evident before. He does get Morwenna to do much of the dirty work for him without being completely honest with her, and in the process, Morwenna learns more about other people’s perceptions of her. Throughout her life, everyone — family, friends, acquaintances — have called her a snob to her face. As mentioned, Morwenna doesn’t really care. But she is stunned by other revelations about her perceived character. As one of her childhood acquaintances tells her:
There’s something about you makes people want to smack you in the face with the truth….
The thing I like about Morwenna is that she does not drastically change when confronted with the truth, which I think is very human. I think very few people experience conversions in life, and so her behavior at the end of the story, when the truth about her father is revealed, is very much in character and exciting to read. She does not react the way we might expect a typical person to react, but she stays in character and perhaps there is something admirable about the way she carries on. She may have softened a bit at the edges but she is a Venton through and through. Honestly, I think that she and her family behave in ways that will be familiar to many readers; dysfunction is dysfunction is dysfunction. They are not evil, but they are petty and mean to one another with an occasional flash of humanity.
Overall, this is a clever and well written novel about connections, responsibility and setting boundaries. The characters are real and familiar enough to be a bit unsettling, which adds to the fun in reading their story.