How does a woman end up living alone, in a vermin-infested shed with no electric or heating at a deserted crossroads in Penzance?
Catrina Davies answers this question in her second book, Homesick. However, what might sound like a story of slipping off the edge of society is actually a funny, lyrical, deeply relevant and life-affirming story of finding freedom on your own terms, resilience and circumnavigating the systematic problems you face if you are poor and without a home of your own.
Davies beautifully narrates her journey from an unsustainable, unstable and unaffordable shared house in Bristol to creating a real home of her own in the shed, which once served as her father’s office – the only thing not repossessed when he went bankrupt.
Homesick is an immersive book, like sitting down for a long catch-up with an old friend, and Davies has a real skill for taking the reader and pulling them along with her through the challenges, the cold and fear and frustrations of trying to carve a place for yourself while clinging on “with your toenails”, and also the joy of nature, of small kindnesses of strangers, of hard work and hard-won comforts.
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
Particularly admirable is Davies’ self-awareness. There is no indulgence or rose-tinted romanticising here – she is as unguarded about her own flaws as she is unvarnished about the state of housing welfare and consumerism that led her to her shed, her father to bankruptcy, her mother to the constant fear of landlord visits and eviction from her one-bedroom flat (all that she is able to rent because of bedroom tax, despite their extreme scarcity).
Davies also acknowledges that she is privileged to be able to make these choices, that she might have made others if she’d had more money and less desire to do the things she loves and that many folks get those choices
“Home,” she tells us, “is fundamental, like teeth and sleep and love” and, in many ways, this is really a love story to that idea of home. Not just as a place of bricks and mortar – or wood and corrugated iron in this case – but in a feeling of belonging, of safety, of having the basic shelter and security a person needs to thrive and not simply survive.
Another woman striving to create on her own terms is the protagonist of Barbara Bourland’s slick psychological thriller Fake Like Me, based in the elite contemporary art world of New York. When she loses everything in a fire, a talented working-class artist, suddenly broke and homeless, manages to wrangle a residency in an upstate New York artists’ colony owned by a group of bright young things still reeling from the apparent suicide of their most famous and talented cohort Carey Logan.
She finds herself both pushing herself to her creative limit to replace her paintings – to enable her to retain the little status and security she’s been able to gain as an artist with no safety net – while also pushing against the secrecy of the group about Carey’s suicide.
What ensues is one-part thriller, one-part gossipy autopsy of the fickle nature of the contemporary art scene and one-part – the best in my opinion – exploration of privilege, entitlement and gender in the ever more commercially focused creative industries. The sum of its parts? A perfect cocktail of a pacy, intelligent summer read.