Hardcover, 272 pages
Publisher: Viking (June 2015)
Selected by Mary Mount
“The mother-and-daughter relationship, and the questions about family responsibility, are so vividly and acutely drawn here. A terrific debut from a very sharp new voice in British fiction.” —Mary Mount
Twins Morwenna and Corwin live in Devon and, shortly after they turn 18, their father drunkenly falls off a cliff and dies. They leave their childhood home to start their adult lives – Morwenna in London, Corwin travelling around the world. When their grandfather Matthew grows ill, the twins find themselves back in Devon. Over the years, Matthew has created a hand-drawn map of the area, and they find themselves drawn to its odd details, determined to see if it can expose the truth about their father’s death.
Corwin left for India. I gave him the copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying1. I re-read it recently and, of course, it is a completely different story from the one I remembered. In the sixth form we read it as a noble battle against the Money God. Gordon Comstock was our hero. I had forgotten that he fails to escape the conventional course of job, wife, child, and aspidistra on the occasional table.
I went to London. Nowadays, it is all shiny, with pale pressure-washed pavements and al fresco foamy coffee. We have stopped worrying about Mutually Assured Destruction and the demise of the trade unions and we worship the Money God without shame. But the London that I found when I first arrived was depression grey with tired, smoke-filled buses. Coffee was instant, the pavements lined with al fresco sleepers, young, male, northern or Scottish. There were no Poles, Bulgarians, Estonians or Russians. They were all corralled behind the Iron Curtain, which at the time seemed unfair on them, but also to keep them safe, at least, from Margaret Thatcher and The Americans. There were three student tribes: the Political (donkey jackets, Dr Martens boots), the Apolitical (vintage pillbox hats, mohair batwing jumpers) and the Tories (stripes and pearls, rugby shirts). Safely beyond the range of Corwin’s social conscience, my sense of outrage at injustice, both national and global, dissipated. It was sad, it really was, for all those lost young men along the Strand and under Waterloo Bridge, but it had ever been thus (I took comfort from the phrase – it lent a certain historical distance to the problem). I took to rooting around Oxfam shops and wearing diamanté brooches and clicked on uncomfortable sixties stiletto heels past the buckets rattled at the university gate on behalf of The Palestinians and The Sandinistas.
Already by the Christmas break of my first year, Thornton seemed improbable. I was far more comfortable alone among the shoals of solitudes slipping through London than I had been intimately sharing the cavernous loneliness of the coast. I began to think of Thornton as a caricature of itself, one populated by the creatures that inhabited Matthew’s map.
Mum suggested that we spend the Christmas holidays in London. “It will just be too grim in Thornton, darling! I’m going slightly mad – I actually miss your father pottering about in his vegetable patch! And Matthew and I have nothing to say to each other so we have to be meticulously polite all the time, which is utterly exhausting! Let’s go out. I’ll take you shopping.”
I was glad. I had been dreading Christmas. Matthew wouldn’t come up, of course, so Mum stayed in a hotel and we met up on the steps of the National Gallery. “Darling, you lucky thing!” she said, over tea. “I used to love coming here. My parents used to bring me – as you know, they didn’t have an imaginative bone in their bodies, but they had the idea that young ladies should look at art.”
 By George Orwell: “To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical bowler-hatted sneak.”