Davies casts her plight in a more romantic light – she convinces herself that living in a shed near the sea without hot water or electricity is her version of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond. The shed, 18ft by 6ft, marooned on its own at a crossroads, was once an ad hoc “office” for her dad, who had a rural surveyor’s practice that went bankrupt in 1992. Davies had explored every other option before this one: most recently she rented a boxroom in Bristol in a house with four other adults and a child (her presence was in contravention of the lease, so she had to erase all traces of sleeping there). The house was let by owners who were travelling the world on the combined income of those living in it. Before that, Davies lived in a caravan and in the back of a yellow Iveco van and in a tent outside a backpackers’ hostel, where she worked as a waitress.
At times her book turns into a polemic against the madness of the housing market. I was unconvinced by some of her proposed solutions (“building more houses should be a last resort”) but Davies clearly and succinctly describes the vastness of the problem.
While Homesick is written from the perspective of a woman struggling to make it as a musician and writer, its relevance is much broader in a country where average house prices have tripled in the last four decades. The tourist haven of Cornwall – so beautifully evoked in this book you can smell the salt in the air – is both idyllic and troubled, an extreme version of the divides playing out around the UK. Davies writes of teachers leaving because they can’t afford a home, and local families including her sister moving into tents every summer because renting their homes to tourists is the only way to pay the mortgage.
Homesick is not a work of social science, neither is it a polemic; it’s a captivating memoir of personal struggle and recovery. It touches lightly on Thoreau’s Walden but goes its own way, taking as its canvas this precarious moment in our national story, when young people everywhere are seeing ladders pulled up, denied the securities and opportunities that their parents or even Thoreau took for granted. “I was taught that if I worked hard and lived an honest and generous life then I would be rewarded,” Davies writes. “This was misguided. I should have been taught to grab hold of that ladder and stamp on the hands of the people below me.”
Aged 31, Davies was renting a tiny room in a house in Bristol, working several jobs just to pay the rent. Homesick for the West Cornish landscapes of her childhood, she quits the city and settles in a tiny, dilapidated shed in Penwith. Taking inspiration from Henry David Thoreau's Walden, this compelling account of finding a home, and a new equilibrium, is both a deeply personal memoir and an urgent call for us to wake up to the modern housing crisis, particularly in places like Cornwall, where second-home ownership completely skews the local economy.