Date posted: 19th July 2017 / Book Reviews
Ahead of our CEO Helen Chaloner's appearance at Port Eliot next week as part of a panel discussion on depictions of farming in literature alongside Anthony Gibson and Graham Harvey, here in the Literature Works office we wanted to explore some of those depictions in recent fiction set in the South West. We're delighted to share our review of The Farm at the Edge of the World by Sarah Vaughan.
We’ve all done it haven’t we–? Been sitting in some idyllic place, having a cream tea (jam then cream of course as an honorary Cornish girl) looked out across the charming rural landscape and thought, yes I could do this. This being owning a small holding or farm which served rustic farm style fare – cream teas and the like. Even though I have grown up in the Cornish countryside I know that on a warm summer’s afternoon after a little too much vitamin D and homemade jam, I have definitely thought that.
So tempting is it in the modern age of technology and too much screen time to dream of this kind of escape that the second I started reading Sarah Vaughan’s novel The Farm at the Edge of the World, I was transported from my daily commute to a coastal farm and the notion that the good life was certainly worth the pursuit. This is clearly one of the core tenets of this novel- the idea of escape the beautiful Skylark ‘Polblazey’ Farm has all the rugged charm of those dreamy afternoons after all but it does not take long to discern that beneath its idyllic façade, there lives an unsettling secret, a ghost of the past and it is constantly making its presence felt, barely concealing itself for the characters who still inhabit the farm.
The Farm at the Edge of the World is my favourite kind of novel: the time slip, the semi-historical, in short: the unputdownable – attested to by the fact that it took me just a single commute to devour this story of love, betrayal, intrigue, family and farming.
The novel centres around the story of Maggie a young girl growing up in the 1940s who has become the matriarch of Skylark in 2014. Maggie leads a charmed life on her family’s farm and is only too happy to show it off when the family are joined by evacuees Will and Alice. Arriving from London, the children have much to learn of farm life and Maggie who is vivacious and mischievous is only too happy to oblige. Flash forward to 2014 and Maggie is (despite her persistent loyalty towards her family’s farm) wistful, sad and haunted by the ghost of something she just won’t share.
As the story progresses and Maggie’s granddaughter Lucy returns to the farm with secrets and regrets of her own, the reader spends their time witnessing Skylark as a still affluent though clearly war-afflicted farm in the 40s and a place used to former glory in the Teenies. Whilst it is easy and I suspect intentional to get swept away by the rural idyll – sea-swimming children become young adults who rock pool and are removed from the cares of the world -, Vaughan ensures that reality is never far from our minds.
The farm does struggle in both narratives. There is a sense that not all of the family live there for passion but rather for loyalty. Whilst it is easy and indeed possible here to see farming as an entirely pleasurable pursuit should a reader so choose, look deeper and there are some harrowing and harsh truths. One particular scene with some livestock springs to mind…. Farming was and still is, necessary to economic growth in rural communities. Vaughan astutely conveys that message as part of her wider plot – a burgeoning romance in the 1940s which has shockwave impact on the present day – without compromising the escapism of the farm as a symbol and indeed as a character within the novel.
This is achieved by the significance afforded to place in the novel – London versus Cornwall, home versus away and Skylark Farm remains the stalwart throughout all the changes that occur in the novel. Its presence is felt and does impact upon the story in such a way that it is at once a place of comfort and of sinister secrets, the scene of childhood folly and very adult truths, it has agency and is power in shaping the outcome of the novel.
I have been deliberately vague on the actual plot of the novel because I believe that the magic of this book lies in losing yourself entirely to the time-slip of the novel and following the farm and its residents through the ups and downs of life through the decades.
A fantastic novel with a strong sense of regional, local and personal identity, excellently well-developed characters and a view of farming that is enlightening and heartening simultaneously, The Farm at the Edge of the World comes highly recommended.
The Farm at the Edge of the World is available now from Hodder and Stoughton.
We caught up with Sarah to discuss her motivation for choosing farming as a subject for her novel and how her passion for the South West inspired in the novel.
The Farm at the Edge of the World is a time slip novel set in Cornwall in the 1940s and in 2014. There is the sense that ‘the edge of the world’ provides some sense of escape in both time periods, however, there are also startlingly honest representations of farm life then and now. How important were these representations to the story – what made them inescapable – and why did you choose to focus on farming in the novel?
The Farm at the Edge of the World was inspired by childhood holidays to the west of Padstow and by my mother’s memories of spending each August on her grandfather’s farm, Trewiddle, just outside St Austell. As a child, her memories were magical and I was very conscious of my Cornish heritage: all my Cornish ancestors seeming to be tenant farmers or Methodist ministers. I’d visited the farm as a child, when my mother’s cousin, Graham farmed there, and I wanted to explore this world that can seem so timeless compared to the frenetic pace of urban life. But I didn’t want to create a sentimentalised view of farming, or of Cornwall. I remember being back home in Devon when foot and mouth hit the country, and the eeriness of walking past fenced-off fields emptied of animals or seeing buckets of disinfectant at farm gates. I sensed how financially crippling farming could be – a view intensified by my talking to various farmers. So, although the beauty of the cliffs, sea, moors and fields of north Cornwall needed to shine through, so too did the physical, emotional and financial strain of farming. Cornwall – and even Devon – can feel ‘at the edge of the world’: certainly somewhere cut off from the decision-making and relative wealth of London. I wanted that sense of extremity to inform all aspects – geographical, dramatic, emotional – of the novel.
As a South West based charity, we love our region. We were struck by the strong sense of place and the notion that whilst it was a refuge for Will and Alice – the child evacuees at the novel’s opening – it was also the place that threatened and even derailed their innocence. What was it about Cornwall that made for the setting of a novel with a secret at its heart?
Cornwall can seem so geographically cut off from the rest of Britain, and the topography can also seem secretive: from coves you can only reach by foot to parts of the moor that are still isolated and, when the mist comes down, desolate. There are tiny, twisting lanes, hidden creeks, and miles of coastline where, at least out of season, you can still find yourself alone. All of this seems to lend itself to Cornwall being a place where secrets can be hidden, and will then unfold. As far as Cornwall threatening and derailing my characters’ innocence, well, I do feel that darkness is present. Parts of Cornwall – particularly the moor or the cliffs in a storm – can still feel wild. It’s a wonderful setting to write about because its beauty isn’t twee and a change in weather means it can be transformed. I think, in Cornwall, you can see still see nature at its most raw.
Skylark farm had such a strong presence throughout the novel – it seemed to have absorbed the hopes and dreams and the secrets and lies of its various residents, although they have tried to escape it, each character is in their way pulled back in by the sense that they belong there. Was it a conscious decision to have the farm become almost a character – with agency and ability to affect the plot to such dramatic effect- in the novel?
Yes – hence devoting the prologue to describing the place in all its emotional complexity. Skylark – or Polblazey as I thought of it – had to be this massive presence to explain why Maggie, and to a lesser degree Lucy, Tom and Judith, were reluctant to leave it – though they knew it made little financial sense to stay. From talking to farmers, I learned that the pressure not to be the generation that gives up the family farm could be intense. But the setting needed to be exquisite, as well: the view of the fields running down to the sea; the high cliffs in one direction and the moor in the other being as much of a lure as a home, and family business, packed tight with secrets.
You’re influenced by the South West in your writing. Can you describe a typical day’s writing for us?
Unfortunately, I’m not based in the South West at the moment though I’m down as much as possible as both my parents still live there. I was brought up in Exeter but now live in landlocked Cambridgeshire with my husband and two young children. We’ve just acquired a puppy so the day starts with walking my youngest to school and the puppy in the fields for an hour. Then I’m back at my desk and write through until school pick-up, aiming for 1,000 words a day – though on a good day it can be double; on a poor day, particularly with this new puppy, it can be less. The Farm at the Edge of the World is selling well in France, so I’ve been to Paris twice in the last six weeks to promote La Ferme du Bout du Monde. I also go to London about once a month to discuss or promote Anatomy of a Scandal, my next novel, out in January, which will be translated into 15 languages; and this weekend I’m off to Harrogate, to the crime festival, to do the same. Most of the time, however, I’m researching, wrestling with plot or looking at my screen. My hours increase when the edits come back and I have tight deadlines.
You’re a former journalist and now write fiction. Did your career as a journalist impact upon the way you approach the writing process? Can you tell us a little about how you switched genres?
I started writing fiction the week I turned 40, though it was something I’d wanted to do for years. I’d been a Fleet St journalist for 13 years, 11 on the Guardian, and the skills I learned in my former career have certainly helped as a novelist. As a journalist, I loved interviewing people to discover their stories, so for The Farm, I interviewed former evacuees and octogenarian Cornish farmers to discover what it might be like to be Will or Alice. I also know I can meet deadlines and, when pushed, daily word counts. I switched genre because of life events, really. I had taken redundancy from the Guardian after I’d had my second baby and hated freelancing. I had this idea and persuaded my husband I could get a novel sold within a year (despite only having written 15,000 words, not having an agent; or any idea of the process.) And I just got on with it. I wrote 8,000 words a week and by the time I’d written 60,000 my now agent had picked the first three chapters from her “slush pile”. She worked on it with me for nine months and it was bought immediately. I’ve since learned you’re meant to polish an entire manuscript before contacting an agent so I was very lucky.
If you could offer once piece of advice to writers looking to change the direction of their work, what would it be?
Read. Read widely and critically. In the genre you’d like to write in and elsewhere. Then just get on with it. Writing’s like a muscle: it becomes stronger and more effective the more it’s worked. Third piece of advice: stay off social media. It’s great for networking but it drains your time. And good luck!