Houses with Hearts by Alex Cotter

The House on the Edge is a debut middle grade novel from Alex Cotter. It features a house on the edge of a cliff, perilously clinging on. Alex has written an enchanting piece for our blog about houses and why one became a central character in her book.

Home is where the heart is. Except if you keep moving house, and then you leave bits of your vital organ all over the shop.

It’s fair to say I’ve lived in a number of houses. Nine, by the time I left home at 18 – which possibly also explains my curiosity for a house as a central character in a story. As constant ‘new girl’ in childhood, I had a peculiar habit of caricaturing each new house every time we moved: one might be comforting, another cruel; stoic, sassy; loving, detached. Similar to my house, The Lookout, in ‘The House on the Edge’, I can still recall creaks that sounded like knee joints, ticks like heartbeats, whines like shrieks or tears.

I’m sure I projected onto each house the mood and experience of each move, each new school, the severity of loneliness and loss. I’m certain I made each house reflect back what I needed to feel safe. Like Faith in my story, I had this overpowering feeling that if I could make each house a home again, I’d be okay somehow.

It’s probably also why I relish a story that uses a house as a mirror to the characters’ problems. From Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Manderley’, reflecting the novel’s secrets and uncertainty, to the alternate house in ‘Coraline’ that hosts her fears and grows her courage. To the fantastic, ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, where Marinka wants to stay put and make friends (goodness, I know how she feels!). Then there’s wonderful ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, where the house seems to work in unison with Sylvia and Bonnie to expel the evil presence of Miss Slighcarp.

But is it merely that we project our fears, insecurities and hopes onto our homes, or can houses cast their own spectral stories onto us too?

I do think there is some truth that over time bricks and mortar soak up and breathe out the history of its residents’ emotional and sometimes tragic experiences. That unhappiness – and joy – can be contained to later ooze and bleed from the fabric of walls and floors. In my current (ever-after, I hope!) home, there is a distinctly different atmosphere depending which room you are in. Our home used to be two tiny cottages that have been knocked into one, and visitors always spot the vastly different atmosphere in the two halves – one fun, one melancholy. Is this down to those who have come before us? Their lives, their losses held together in stone?

My peripatetic childhood also sent me down a path to discover what turns a house into a home. How do you conjure up a comfy construction worthy of Pooh Corner or dig out a home as underground-cosy as a Hobbit’s? Oh, I used to be so incredibly jealous of the Wombles and Laura Ingalls with their perfectly happy-ever-after abodes! Conversely, my two favourite childhood films were home-seekers: ‘There’s no place like home’ and ‘ET Phone home’. There was that message again: get back home and you’ll be okay.

You often write a story to answer a question that is burning a hole in your heart. And so I suppose ‘The House on the Edge’ is as much a journey of exploration for myself, as it is for my main character, Faith – to accept that home isn’t about foundations or walls, furnishings or fabrics . . . it’s the people.  

So, thank you, fellow Hobbits and Wombles, Duncan, Laurie and Mae. Because wherever you are . . . well, I’m already home.

Bio: Alex Cotter spent most of her childhood living in stories, to escape the perils of being permanent ‘new girl’ in schools across Chester, Luton, Sheffield and Middlesbrough. After studying English at Essex University, Alex went on to make a make a living from words: from bookselling at W.H.Smith and publicising The Booker Prize to copywriting and teaching creative writing.
Alex now lives near Bath with her family in an old, crumbly house, with cobwebs, creaky floorboards and, who knows, possibly also a few ghosts.

The House on the Edge is published by Nosy Crow and is now available from booksellers.

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