HQ | 2018 (17 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is July 1986 and teenager Tamsyn dreams of another life. Her own is difficult. She lives with her mother and brother in a small house in St Just on the coast of west Cornwall. Money is scarce, jobs are few and it seems like no time at all since Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man, was lost at sea during a rescue. He used to take Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, and a highlight on the walk was the beautiful Cliff House, owned by the wealthy Davenport family who spend much of their year in London and other more exotic destinations. Tamsin and her father would even swim in the pool when the family were away.
Now Tamsyn watches the house on her own, observing the daily lives of the glamorous Mr and Mrs Davenport during their summer stay in Cliff House. To Tamsyn, their lives are perfection. She wishes nothing more than to be part of their lives. And when Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before, catches her swimming in the pool, Tamsyn gets her wish. But sometimes the truth is even more extraordinary than the dream.
In The Cliff House, Amanda Jennings returns to the gorgeous Cornish coast that she brought to life so beautifully in the outstanding In Her Wake, one of my top reads of 2016. I know this stretch of coast, around Sennen Cove, St Just and Cape Cornwall, very well and it is one of my most favourite places in the world. It’s clear that the author shares my love for it because it is evoked here with such eloquence and warmth. It is irresistible.
The novel revolves around the two very different families, the wealthy Davenports and Tamsyn’s much poorer family – her mother is Mrs Davenport’s cleaner. When the two come together, emotions become tangled, complicated by the influence and presence of Tamsyn’s brother Jago. But the heart of the novel can be found with Tamsyn and Edie who become unlikely friends due to a shared loneliness and sense of isolation and separation from their parents. The more that we learn about Mr and, especially, Mrs Davenport, it becomes clear that their stunning art deco Cliff House is no paradise.
Both Edie and Tamsyn are wonderful characters. The narrative moves between the two girls, allowing us to see both sides of a sometimes difficult, developing friendship. Tamsyn’s life is dominated by the grief she feels for her father and we spend uncomfortable moments in her mind as she works through the pain of watching her attractive mother date. Tamsyn is laid bare and we’re drawn close to her. The Davenports, by contrast, take on an almost distorted, ugly air, with Edie struggling to free herself. There is tragedy in this novel, at contrast with the beauty of its landscape.
I would argue that The Cliff House isn’t a psychological thriller, or even a thriller at all. I would suggest that you shouldn’t go into the novel expecting that kind of read. Instead, Amanda Jennings gives us an exquisitely written literary novel about loss, love, madness, and, above all else, growing up, all set against the most stunning backdrop of this splendid house, perched on a cliff along the most beautiful coast.