• The Dark Room

The Cornish House, Liz Fenwick

Writing.ie | Magazine | Special Guests | Women’s Fiction
liz-fenwick

By Eleanor Fitzsimmons

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Although she grew up in Boston and now spends much of her time in Dubai it was beautiful, atmospheric Cornwall that Liz Fenwick chose as the setting for her very enjoyable debut novel, The Cornish House. Grieving artist Maddie inherits Trevenen, a rambling, characterful old house shortly after the death of her husband. She leaves London and relocates there with her hostile step-daughter Hannah in tow, hoping to find a peaceful life and return to her painting. The reality is anything but tranquil.
The house feels so authentic that it is like another character in the book and leaps from the page. Such a location adds hugely to the story, to how the story resonates with the reader and I asked Liz if it is based on a real place? “Yes, Trevenen is based on a real house that then grew and evolved as I wrote the story. Years ago on one of my first visits to the Helford area I saw this magic house set on its own on a remote Cornish lane. From that moment it had captured me. I’d often find myself thinking about the house. Who had lived there? What were their lives like? Who lived there now? Did it hold any secrets? I couldn’t help thinking it did.”
The Cornish setting makes reading so pleasurable as all of the often heartrending events described are juxtaposed with the beauty of the wild, isolated place that has inspired people for centuries. I wondered if distance made it easier for Liz to evoke the magic of the place. “I think because I’m away from Cornwall so much and so want to be there – that it’s very easy to transport myself there. I escape into my ‘book world’ to the place I love.”

Cornwall has inspired so many writers and artists, including Daphne du Maurier, Patrick Gale and the sculptress Barbara Hepworth. Has Liz found inspiration in any of their work or that of others associated with Cornwall? “I love the way du Maurier writes about Cornwall. There is such poetry in it without a doubt. I really wanted to capture the place that has stolen my heart.” She has managed that beautifully.

The novel deals with the troubled relationship between Maddie and Hannah. Both lost their mothers early, both are grieving for John, the man who linked them but they are unable to properly share that grief. It’s an unconventional relationship that allows the author to explore issues of connection and loss. When I asked Liz what drew her to this theme she described how she has “always been fascinated by step-families and just wondered what happens when you take out the link that joins them.” The fact that one of the characters is a difficult teenager makes the exploration of this situation even more acute.

As outsiders Maddie and Hannah also have to settle into a new community – and a tight-knit one at that. Liz drew on her own experiences when describing this challenge. “I have been an outsider so many times now I may have lost count. My experiences of being overwhelmed by not only sorting a house but, more importantly, the need to build a support network are played out by Maddie.”

 

However, there is the potential for happiness there too and for Maddie it comes in the shape of Mark, a handsome but troubled local with a difficult past and a resistance to settling down. Interestingly I’ve read that Mark was a minor character in a previous novel that Liz had written. I wondered could she not get him out of her head. He certainly is a compelling character. “No, Mark wouldn’t leave me alone – not that I’m complaining!. I had to tell his story.”

For Mark, Maddie, Hannah and every character in the novel, family connections and history are hugely important themes. Is it important to Liz that people know their origins and heritage? She confirms this, “I grew up in a huge Irish Catholic community in the Boston area and I think that created the interest I have regarding families and their heritage. All four of my grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the States but spoke very little of their past lives. Because of this I became intrigued about why they left and what they had left behind.” Her own experience of feeling connected is particularly of interest to her Irish readers. She firmly believes that you can feel that you belong to a place. “My first visit to Ireland at the age of 13 proved this to me. The landscape spoke to me although I had never stepped foot there before. I used this sense of connection as the basis of Maddie’s feelings about Cornwall and Trevenen. She is drawn to the land and her forbearers call to her.”

Although very busy with the launch of The Cornish House – which is a perfect holiday read – Liz has already started on her next project, one closely related to this book. She is finding time to enjoy the launch of The Cornish House too. “it’s a dream come true and I’m enjoying every moment while working on the next book, August Rock.” So what’s the next one about I wonder? “It’s the story where Mark makes his first appearance and it’s about Jude who suddenly wakes up to the fact that she’s living life by other people’s designs and not her own. The book follows her journey of self-discovery as she moves to Cornwall and falls in love for the first time- not with a person but a place”

Cornwall is certainly a place that’s easy to fall in love with. Liz Fenwick’s novel will delight those who have been there and no doubt inspire those who have not to go there as soon as they can. A gripping, atmospheric, and delightful read.

About the author

(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons May 2012

 

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