Lockdown forced us to become more familiar with our homes and neighbourhoods. Some have been delighted to discover new treasures on our doorsteps … or even behind the sofa. It left others desperate to get away. Perhaps you’ve felt a mixture of both?
The title of my novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, promises a homecoming, but it’s not straightforward. Is it ever? Whether readers consider the promise fulfilled depends on the identity of Matilda Windsor and on their concept of home. Is home where we feel most comfortable or where we spend most of our time?
Home means different things to my three main characters. Matty has spent fifty years in Ghyllside psychiatric hospital but, in her head, she’s a society hostess in a stately home. Henry, a local government officer approaching retirement, lives alone in the house where he was born, but he can’t make it homely without his sister, who left when he was a boy. Janice, a social worker in her early twenties, rents a one-bedroom flat, but still considers the house she grew up in, and the one she shared as a student with friends, as home.
Home is a popular theme in fiction; one poignant and funny novel that shaped me as a writer is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which I read in my teens. However, I created my character Matty, the beating heart of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, with a much older heroine in mind. In Emma Healey’s beautiful debut, Elizabeth Is Missing, dementia is shrinking Maud’s world (and brain). As her life becomes more confusing, her house is a retreat, but eventually she’ll be too disabled to stay there safely on her own. Perhaps she’ll move in with her daughter, or be admitted to a ‘home’.
Can hospital be home for long-term residents? Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest suggests not. As outlined in my post, Resettlement revisited in my novel Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, part of the motivation for the asylum closures was to give former patients somewhere to live that was more like a home.
If it’s hard for vulnerable adults to feel at home within residential services, how much harder must it be for children in the care system? In My Name Is Leon, Kit de Waal shows how tough life can be for looked-after children, especially if they are black. Silver, in Hope Farm by Peggy Frew, does have the luxury of living with her mother, but she longs to leave the commune so she can have her to herself.
For people violently uprooted, reconnection can take generations, as Yaa Gyasi illustrates in her magnificent debut about the enslavement of people from the region of Africa that is now Ghana, Homegoing. As Ben Fountain explores in the satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, return is also complicated for young men who’ve been damaged since leaving, especially when their individuality is denied and they are being used as political pawns.
I could go on; there must be thousands of novels about home.
Which is your favourite and what does it tell us
about the meaning of home?