Ideas of home are nebulous, ranging from “where the heart is”, to the slightly less warming sentiment of Robert Frost: “The place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Over the course of writing If This Is Home, I spent a lot of time thinking about how people attribute places, people and areas to “home”. But for the purposes of this very personal top 10 I had to cut it down somehow. I decided to restrict it to traditional homes in novels – ie buildings in which fictional characters live. With regret, therefore, I’ve had to leave out William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Richard Ford’s Haddam, Patrick Hamilton’s The Midnight Bell, Joan Didion’s house in The Year of Magical Thinking, every home that Alice Munro has ever described, not to mention the prisons, bars and hospitals that are as much homes as they are establishments.
1. Satis House, in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Miss Havisham’s decaying lair is as much of as an intrigue as the character herself. Stopped clocks, rooms paused in time, a name that literally translates as “enough”: Satis House is home, prison and memorial – a wonderfully realised expression of the contradictions of being at home.
2. Des Esseintes’ country house, in A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans
Possibly the most intricately detailed and described home in literature, the place where the Duc Jean des Esseintes heads to spend his life in decadent contemplation is a home of extraordinary richness, of obsessive attention to detail. It is a place where he can live out his aesthetic fancies and fantasies. It is, however, a house in which you feel that only des Esseintes could feel at home.
3. Bartlebooth’s apartment, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec
Perec’s masterpiece – and to my mind the greatest novel since Ulysses – takes place in a Parisian apartment block just after the death of eccentric Englishman Bartlebooth on 23 June 1975. Perec ghosts around the rooms, telling the stories of the inhabitants, showing the lives that have populated the place over the preceding years. It is Bartlebooth’s that is the most interesting: a simple place of retreat; a home as a place of reflection on the rest of the world.
4. Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The scene in which Cathy and Heathcliff first come across their well-to-do-neighbours’ house has remained, for me, one of its most enduring images. The Heights is a working farm, a place of labour; the Grange is about leisure, luxury, relaxation. In such a colourless and blasted narrative, the deep crimsons and golds of the Grange’s decorations show class divisions in an unsubtle yet highly effective manner. Heathcliff’s return and ownership – yet lack of residence – of the place also serves to show home, unlike wealth or status, as a place even more difficult to escape.
5. The island museum in The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
A home in a slightly less conventional sense, the island retreat in which the unnamed fugitive lives is nonetheless a compelling image of home. Bioy Casares’s novel is part modernist triumph, part sci-fi thriller; part compelling novel of ideas, part a tautly sprung mystery. The events that take place there – to explain too much of the plot would spoil the joy of reading it for the first time – show home as a place of repetition and of playing host to the whole gamut of human experience.
6. Bucky Wunderlick’s apartment in Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
Bucky Wunderlick – a rock star modelled on Dylan and Jagger – retreats from the world to an apartment with a refrigerator full of records and a bath in the living room. The charged strangeness of DeLillo’s third novel comes from this odd homestead, from its anonymity and from the fact that seemingly everyone knows where he is. It is the ultimate rock star crashpad.
7. Ruth’s house in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
All of Robinson’s books deal with home to a greater or lesser extent, but Housekeeping remains my favourite of her three novels. I first read it by a pool on holiday, and the chill descriptions of growing up in Fingerbone, Idaho, acted as a sort of literary air-conditioning. This is home as a collection of people under one roof, home as a place to escape from and to return to, home as a shifting sense of selfhood.
8. Dr Jekyll’s house in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Only at home do Jekyll and Hyde coexist; segregated between the front, where Jekyll presents his public persona, and the back, where his laboratory has created Hyde. It is a home in turmoil – something brilliantly exploited by Valerie Martin in Mary Reilly – and yet it is the only place where Jekyll can truly be himself.
9. Karl’s father’s house in A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The home of Knausgaard’s father is terrifying; bleak and swirling with past misdemeanours and regrets. Its squalid filth, the result of his now-dead father’s alcoholism, is foully, vividly rendered: the stink and decay becoming the physical embodiment of a man slipping from middle-class respectability into his own personal hell. It’s a reminder that a home can not only be a place of sanctuary but also an indulgence that allows you to refuse the world outside.
10. 124 Bluestone Road in Beloved by Toni Morrison
124 Bluestone Road is perhaps the most celebrated of modern haunted houses, a home “full of a baby’s venom”. It’s the vital constituent of Morrison’s novel: a living, breathing, almost sentient member of the cast of characters; a true vector of the past and present.
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