Homecoming by Susie Steiner is a literary novel set in North Yorkshire. Here we follow the Hartle family who are struggling farmers as far removed from typical literary novel characters as fish and chips are from chips and guacamole. Ann and Joe run the farm, their son Max and his wife Primrose are the anointed heirs and son Bartholomew and girlfriend Ruby are making a go of things near London. The story shifts easily from one character to another.
We witness Joe’s desperate attempts to make the farm work; Ann’s fatigue and cool head for the domestic finances; Max and Primrose’s lack of spontaneity; Bartholomew’s attempts to loosen family bonds and Ruby’s equally strong efforts to hold on to her boyfriend. Behind it all is the land, and the constant struggle to live, let alone prosper, there.
Homecoming has a fascinating narrative. There is such a thing, it says, as leading the Wrong Life. Father and mother, sons and partners; each have some sense of what he or she ought to be doing. This is not a case of the rather selfish ‘do what you feel is right’, but rather that there is a that sense it is possible to diverge from the path you should be taking in life. This is a story of fate, of absolute values, filtered through hardship and compromise, but never forgotten.
Steiner is interested in the ordinary, in following people living down-to-earth lives, for they all have destinies they can betray. But her patent wish to make a virtue out of all that is normal can go too far. The novel would be stronger, I think, by a greater sense of wonderment and a more stylistic flourish. Steiner seems to know there are grander things in life than she admits to in this, her debut novel. Let’s hope there is more to come from her.
By Andre van Loon