“The Sudden Departure of the Frasers sprang from my fascination – and dismay – with our modern obsession with home owning.
When I was invited to a dinner party recently I was surprised to be issued in advance with a list of banned subjects of conversation – number one of which was house prices. (Number two was schools.)
Well, I can report that it proved impossible for the guests to obey, for it seems we are no longer normal chemically-balanced citizens but addicts who have allowed ourselves to become irrationally fixated on bricks and mortar. And the higher prices rise, the stronger is the desire to chase the dream. We are all complicit in it.
With this novel I wanted to build a story around the hollow heart of the so-called forever home (somehow, that term manages to be both nauseating and sinister). Number 40 Lime Park Road is a beautiful house and yet it is for sale at under market value, even though it’s just been extravagantly renovated. (The bath tub is made of copper and imported from Mexico; as Christy’s mother remarks, ‘I haven’t seen those taps in B&Q.’) While not quite a castle in the air, the deal is certainly too good to be true and Christy and Joe neglect to ask themselves why until it’s far too late.
The difficulty, it emerges, is the man at number 42, Rob Whalen. He is not a neighbour to knock at the door with a basket of muffins any time soon. Behaviour that at first strikes Christy as churlish quickly becomes downright threatening. Clearly he has something to hide – and the other residents of Lime Park Road seem peculiarly determined to aid that concealment.
Of course, I’m not saying that every house purchase will end in tears at the hands of a neighbour of questionable repute, but what is true is that while house hunters spend a great deal of time targeting and plotting and counting (steps to the station, feet to the school gate) we spare remarkably little thought for the people whose heads will be placed on pillows little more than an arm span from our own. The Frasers’/Davenports’ master bedroom is separated by a wall of bricks from Rob’s living room. When Amber is making love with her husband Jeremy, Rob is sitting a couple of metres away. She describes the back-to-back fireplaces as conjoined hearts, an inappropriately romantic image, as it turns out.
So often it is too close for comfort. I have friends who bought a run-down semi-detached house in a desirable postcode and renovated it to resemble a boutique hotel, as the Frasers do, only to be driven out by noisy neighbours before they’d had the chance to sip their Nespressos on their newly decked roof terrace. As my friend explains, it is not just bad behaviour that distresses, it is your permanent state of anticipation of that bad behavior. It’s your horror at your mistake, your powerlessness to set things right.
Thanks (partly) to Rob Whalen, the Davenports are, by the end of the book, in exactly this position, poised to follow in the footsteps of the Frasers and vacate their dream house. Forever comes rather sooner than expected as they wonder if too much has been sacrificed for the privilege of inhabiting their high-status Lime Park home. (Of being able to say they inhabit it to envious family and friends.)
So why have we all succumbed to this gold rush? Why do we insist on prostrating ourselves at the feet of the property gods? Why must we own when we could rent or share or relocate or join a commune or travel the world in a camper van? People cite security, they say they want something tangible to mark their life’s achievements, a solid legacy for the kids. But if you are childfree or keen to raise competent and independent children then you shouldn’t need to plan your living arrangements with a thought to who will take the keys when you’re gone. Live life freely, that’s what I say; we’ll have plenty of time to browse Zoopla when we’re dead.
I’m eager to hear how the first readers will interpret The Sudden Departure of the Frasers because for me it was conceived with a clear aim: it is a cautionary tale. The flesh of intriguing, flawed characters like Amber Fraser and Rob Whalen grew on the bones of the central parable. I’m interested in what our sacrifices are when we make these life-shaping property decisions and whether they are worth it.
I’m interested in asking, if it were us who had to flee like the Frasers, where would we go? And who would miss us?”
The Sudden Departure of the Frasers will be published by Penguin on 21st May. Follow Louise on Twitter at @Louise_Candlish and find out more about Louise and her writing by visiting louisecandlish.co.uk.