A Gap in the Bookshelf by Catherine Banner
How a preoccupation with the untold stories of small-town Europe became, unexpectedly, a novel
There’s a sentence that Toni Morrison once wrote, which I love because it captures for me the impulse that leads writers to write, almost as a kind of last resort. ‘If there is a book you want to read,’ Morrison wrote, ‘and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ The House at the Edge of Night, my debut adult novel, came from this position of absence, from a gap in the bookshelf where there existed, I believed, a story which hadn’t yet been told.
The book began from my experience of the 2008 financial crisis. I was 18 in 2008; that financial crisis was the first global historical event of my adult life. And so, in the years that followed, it inevitably preoccupied me. But when I turned to books, as I think most writers do when attempting to make sense of the world around them, I didn’t see anybody writing about being young in post-financial crisis Europe, and living in a small town. The stories that were being told, some of them brilliant, were nevertheless about the people who caused that crisis, rather than those who suffered it.
Writing, in some ways, is like history: it can become a battleground where conflicting accounts of the same events struggle for dominance. Some stories get written, some don’t, and this alters our perception of the events themselves, it changes history. I was living in the north-east of England, in a small town, and working as a teacher in another. When I had any time off from work, I was spending it in similar small towns in Italy with my extended family. In the UK I saw boarded shops and vacant houses, food banks, closed factories, new loan shops taking over the high street; in Italy, friends and acquaintances talked about rising youth unemployment, a whole generation faced with the impossible choice either to migrate or to become stranded in their hometowns, more and more cut off from the centre, waiting for the tide to change. I wanted somebody to write fiction that would attempt to make sense of these things. Weren’t there stories here that deserved to be told?
My experience as a writer was an unusual one, and so at first I wasn’t convinced that I was the person to do this. I’d been writing for a living since I was fifteen, before I was even technically old enough to work, after a chance meeting with an agent in 2005 led me to write a trilogy of young adult novels for Random House Children’s Books. But in many ways, I had fallen into writing as a career. In fact, when I began to be preoccupied with the ideas that would eventually become The House at the Edge of Night, I wasn’t a writer at all: I was working as a teacher in the north-east of England, and had taken a break from writing which for all I knew might become permanent.
But in the end, this particular preoccupation, this untold story, was enough to convince me to return to writing, if only to put to rest my own wish to tell it. I gave up my day job and began to research the book. And what I discovered was that there was a much bigger story here than that of 2008 and its aftermath. There had been many other moments over the past hundred years, I realised, when the shockwaves of European history had encroached upon small towns, and other generations of young people had been faced with hard decisions: to leave home or stay, to take over family businesses or to forge out alone, to resist oppressive regimes or to assimilate, to dissent and be shamed or else leave and risk dying in other people’s wars. Sometimes, as a writer, a book begins to transcend your narrow personal perspective. Then, your job becomes a secondary one: an attempt to chronicle those stories of other, more remarkable lives, to bring them into the light.
So in the end, The House at the Edge of Night became a much bigger novel than the one I expected to write, about 95 years of European history as experienced by one family, the Espositos, part Italian, part British, and their bar on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily. To me, the island was at first a metaphor for small-town isolation. But over the course of the writing it also became a real place, incorporating many of the things I loved about the small towns I knew: the beauty of such places, the stories we tell about them, the communities that, ultimately, are an ongoing narrative of their own, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, subversive, magical, an alternate history to challenge the recorded version. At heart, I believe, we are all storytelling creatures. And those stories we tell about ourselves, those communities we create, make up the real, unrecorded history of our lives.
(c) Catherine Banner
About The House At The Edge of Night
Intrigued by a building the locals believe to be cursed, Amedeo restores the crumbling walls, replaces sagging doors and sweeps floors before proudly opening the bar he names the ‘House at the Edge of Night’. Surrounded by the sound of the sea and the scent of bougainvillea, he and the beautiful, fiercely intelligent Pina begin their lives together.
Home to the spirited, chaotic Esposito family for generations, the island withstands a century of turmoil – transformed in ways both big and small by war, tourism and recession. It’s a place alive with stories, legends and, sometimes, miracles. And while regimes change, betrayals are discovered and unexpected friendships nurtured, the House at the Edge of Night remains: the backdrop for long-running feuds and the stage for great love affairs.
The House At The Edge of Night is in all bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!