YOU Reading Group: The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig

The Lie of the Land has been called the first Brexit novel, which makes it sound dreary. It’s true that it is partly about the shock of discovering the rural world beyond the London bubble, a world which largely voted to leave Europe – but that is in the background of a very different kind of divorce.

The novel begins with the words ‘There is no money’, which some may remember from the famous note left by a Minister in the last Labour Government. My husband, an economist, had been in the Treasury the day that this note was found and he returned sheet-white, knowing our country was headed for crisis. So, for nearly ten years, it has proved. But I (while fearful too) knew that I had found my next subject for what became The Lie of the Land. Fiction, at least the kind that I write, is about things happening to people. I had written about illegal immigration in Hearts And Minds, and about the last recession in A Vicious Circle, and the idea of exploring how a professional middle-class family is affected by losing everything including their jobs and their London home occurred to me pretty soon after.

This was all too sadly rooted in real life because, at around the same time, many of my closest women friends discovered that their husbands had been unfaithful, giving an extra twist to my novel of downward mobility. Quentin Bredin is a witty, handsome, charming rotter (a journalist, naturally) who has been serially adulterous to Lottie, his anxious, over-controlling architect wife. Together with their two young daughters and Lottie’s mixed-race son from a previous relationship, they must move to darkest Devon – which Quentin escaped from originally. But why is their new rental home so very cheap? Is it just the mice, mud and isolation, or is there something worse?

This is in part a black comedy, but it is also a detective novel in which not one, but several crimes are revealed over the course of a year that changes many lives. Woven into the story about the Bredins’ marriage is one about the Veritys, a sheep-farmer and a health visitor, whose perception of their community is very different from that of the Londoners. So, however, is their marriage. I am endlessly fascinated by the way money, truth and women’s employment have affected the relationships between men and women. I see marriage itself as being at a cross-roads between hope and despair, and this is something I am returning to again in the new novel I am writing now.

Although The Lie of the Land is not at all autobiographical, what is real is the farmhouse the Bredins live in, modelled very much on the half-bodge, half-ruin we fell in love with at the peak of the market. I was recovering from cancer at the time, and we needed a haven very badly. Devon has always been my home from home, the place which as an unhappy expatriate child sent back to boarding school gave me refuge and comfort. It is astoundingly beautiful, as many visitors know, and one of the best places on earth to visit on holiday or to live.

What I didn’t know until then was how poor it is, away from the palmy southern coast and tourist hot-spots. It desperately needs proper broadband, and the railway line to Okehampton and North Cornwall, destroyed by the Beeching cuts, to be restored. Its farmers and its small businesses – which can grow like Luscombe drinks, Otter Valley ice-creams, Burt’s crisps and dozens of enterprising design and tech firms – need better practical and national support. 

Its young families need good, affordable modern housing, and proper jobs. Lottie’s son Xan goes to work in an imagined Devon food-factory called Humble Pies on a zero-hours contract; what he experiences is based on research into many factories in the countryside. Many who have read my novel say they will never touch a ready meal again, but my criticism is not so much of fast food as the employment conditions under which people are made to work.

One of my heroes is Charles Dickens, who wrote contemporary novels with great, suspenseful plots and memorable characters about the way the Victorians of all classes lived, loved, worked and died. This is surely why he is still read today and what causes millions to fall in love with classic novels. I am fed up with historical fiction which, however it is dressed-up, is always an escape into a past that never existed.

What matters is the lives we live now, in the quick of time – the joys and sorrows, the common humanity, the eventfulness, frustrations, salvations, comedies and discoveries. This is what I write about, and this is what I hope readers most enjoy.