This is the last of the books I bought in Cornwall in October 2019; this one I bought from The Edge of the World Bookshop (gladly still going strong) and if you pop any of the other titles in the search box, you’ll find my review. I’m a bit sad I’m still reading 2019 books but I “just” have a couple more plus my Christmas ones to go, honest. And I’ve been reading books on Kindle and books to review for Shiny New Books, too.

Below my review, some book serendipities, some of which appeared in this book. I don’t usually find so many overlapping mentions or themes in just a few weeks, so thought it was worth recording!

Catrina Davies – “Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed”

(03 October 2019)

In my innocence, I originally thought this was about one of those younger people who set up in their parents’ large back garden or on other family land – like they sometimes do in Grand Designs and similar TV programmes, because of housing precarity among the young. But the context for this is far darker and the precarity more insidious.

Davies is 31 and living in a horrible room in a house in Bristol when she loads a few bin bags of possessions into a decaying car and sets up house illegally in the shed that used to be her dad’s office. That’s the office for his failed business; the reason the family lost their house. This shed is the only single piece of property her parents own, and she has to track down her dad to the pub he now works in to ask permission to use it (she’s very very careful about permission and legality, interestingly, while living slightly outside the law; she’s punctilious about paying her taxes for instance). Her mum has lived with mental health conditions and moved from short-term let to short-term let and the sister who does have a house moves out of it every summer with husband and children in order to make some money renting it as a holiday let.

It’s not just Davies and her family, either: there are people all over Cornwall living in tents and cars, renting somewhere their landlord kicks them out of for the summer, and mainly because of the economy of the county, the land and housing owned by a few huge rich landlords and the rest of the people clinging to the jobs and housing they allow them.

Yes, Davies is choosing, to an extent, to leave the endless cycle of having to earn enough to pay for a soulless living space that might be taken away a few weeks later. But the hardship she encounters, staying somewhere that is only a degree or so warmer than outside, washing under a cold tap in a broken shower tray, etc., is a powerful deterrent to the fantasy of getting off grid and out of the rat race. And the fragile nature of her life is highlighted very early on in the book when her shed is broken into and all her few possessions stolen.

This blow early on nothwithstanding, I read on: I really enjoyed all the detail of how she made her shed more comfortable and arranged things, and the community support – although it’s eventually probably a neighbour who reports her once she has a wood-burning stove going, so many more are quietly supportive of her. You read more about that in the conclusion, including the kindness of some of her gardening customers.

Davies talks about solutions, mainly in her case the idea of a land tax rather than a property tax, and also people considering not having second homes / holiday homes. It’s certainly made me think hard about where we stay when we go to Cornwall (although maybe renting from a family who needs the income is OK rather than perpetuating things? It’s hard to work out) and how to make arrangements if we end up finding somewhere in Spain to help with certain health needs. Of course I already considered these matters, but this made me think more carefully still. I also realise how lucky we are to have friends in the area of Cornwall we visit, as reading this book hit the fact home that there is usually a complete divide between residents and visitors, even though she freely accepts some of the visitors will be nice people.

There are positives in the book as well as solutions. Coming from a life of poor mental health and disordered eating, Davies finds that taking control of her life, even in this unorthodox way, brings a lot of improvement to her lot in many ways:

There was such a thing as self-determination. I realized that the shed had already started to alter the way I felt about myself, and the way I responded to things. (p. 137)

Her descriptions of the visceral and meditative nature of surfing were vivid and interesting, and the way her anxiety made everything terrifying, so she ended up doing ‘brave’ things as they were just as terrifying, not more or less, than phoning the bank. She also shares lessons that she’s learned, realising that money and power can be used for good when, having removed herself from circles that produce those things, if her life had gone another way she could have saved the wild land across the road.

A powerful and often upsetting, but necessary, read.

I have a few serendipities (a la Bookish Beck, her latest serendipity post here) to start the year. I read two first novels in a row by people who went on to write 20 plus (“Rhododendron Pie” by Margery Sharp and “If Morning Ever Comes” by Anne Tyler”). Two books read at the same time were set in Sussex (“Rhododendron Pie” and Isabella Tree’s “Wilding”) and two read concurrently (this one here, “Homesick” by Catrina Davies and “The Natural Health Service” by Isabel Hardman (I didn’t finish that one)) feature an author who has had a severe mental health breakdown, and two (“Wilding” and “The Natural Health Service”) included the information that trees’ and other plants’ roots are linked by almost invisible skeins of fungi into one living organism. That’s just the books I’ve read or started this year or at the very end of last year!