Reviewed by Annabel
Quentin and Lottie want to divorce – but they can’t afford to. Well, can’t afford to sell their big London house and buy two smaller ones that will permit them to carry on their city lives. Lottie comes up with a solution – move to a cheap part of Devon and rent, while they wait for London prices to go up.
Quentin feels sick. ‘You’ve no idea what the countryside is like to live in, especially Devon. If you stand still for a minute there, fungus grows between your toes. It rains all the time. They don’t like strangers’.
Lottie has it sorted though. She’s found a great deal on an old farmhouse to rent and Quentin’s parents live nearby – so they won’t be true strangers. The girls will go to the outstanding local primary school, and they’ll sort out something for older teen Xan, Lottie’s son from a previous relationship.
Amanda Craig’s novels are often full of moments of black comedy, and this one is no exception. There are some hilarious scenes – mostly involving Quentin. At first, he is the breadwinner, writing a regular column about life in the country under the pseudonym, ‘Questing Vole’:
There’s a fashion for calling children Devon, as there used to be for calling them India or Africa, he’s written in his column. No wonder. Devon is a foreign country. The only thing you can be absolutely certain of, as in India and Africa, is that you’ll live in a state of permanent frustration.
They haven’t been at Home Farm long before Quentin manages to run local health visitor Sally off the road on his way to the station to escape back to London for a bit. She is rescued by Lottie and they get to chatting:
‘I suppose weather matters more here than it does in the city.’
‘We do find other things interesting, too,’ Sally says dryly. […] There are quite a lot of things going on, but it’s too soon to tell her about those yet. Or, indeed, why Home Farm will be familiar to anyone local.
Bumping along the drive in Lottie’s car, she even spots a scarp of blue and white plastic police tape left tied round a tree. The estate agent must have missed it.
This is the first we hear of the central mystery embedded in the story. It turns out that the previous tenant was murdered – in fact, beheaded at the house. The police never found the head of mild-mannered piano teacher, Oliver Randall. Quentin and Lottie will find this out individually and keep it from each other. The Lie of the Land is, however, much more than a comedy of manners set around the mystery of an unsolved murder.
Craig uses this as a framework to comment on social justice and the difficulties facing those living in the countryside. She highlights the poverty in the village, the never getting a day off life of being a farmer, and through Xan we see the mind-numbing effects of zero-hours contracts in the pie factory. Even Quentin has his own trials too, as he suffers the emasculation of losing his column and not being the breadwinner anymore just as Lottie manages to reboot her own career as an architect. Added to that is the slow physical decline of Quentin’s father, a man he’d never been close to.
There is one notable character in this novel whom I haven’t mentioned yet. He is more notable by his absence for the most part – yet he is at the bottom of most of the drama in the novel – an enabling presence in the mode of Hitchcock’s McGuffins. Old rocker Gore Tore lives in the nearby mansion with his current Australian wife and their kids, although he is notorious for siring a whole string of kids by different women. He is, however, much loved in the village, but, still touring, he is rarely there.
Amanda Craig is well-known for reusing her characters. Quentin and Lottie appeared in her previous novel Hearts and Minds before getting their own starring roles here. They are wonderfully drawn and even Quentin engages our empathy by the end. Other recurring characters make small appearances too; for those who have encountered them before, the familiarity engages us instantly. But it is not necessary to have read her previous books: each of Craig’s novels does stand alone. My favourite new character in this book was Xan – a young man who is on the cusp of bigger things, and with a father to find. I do hope that she will decide to give us more of him.
At the beginning of the novel Lottie and Quentin are at war. Will things change by the end? I urge you to read it for yourself to find out, for this is another funny and movingly brilliant novel from Amanda Craig. Superb!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – read a Q&A with Amanda Craig here.
Amanda Craig, The Lie of the Land (Little, Brown 2017). 978-1408709290, 432pp., hardback.
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