Burning Down George Orwell’s House
Author: Andrew Ervin
Soho Press, 2015 (publishes May 5th)
Reviewed by Melanie J. Cordova
After countless hours of travel, an exhausted and ill-prepared Ray Welter arrives on Jura, an island off the coast of Scotland where he has rented the house in which George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell—known as Eric Blair on Jura—is Ray’s MacGuffin, weaving through Andrew Ervin’s Burning Down George Orwell’s House like the paths and trails on the island itself. Before he left the United States, Ray was an advertising executive struggling to come to terms with his role in selling SUVs disastrous to the environment while his marriage was falling apart. Once on Jura, Ray spends his time in George Orwell’s house drinking a seemingly endless supply of scotch, rereading his copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and hiding from the creature—possibly a werewolf—that keeps leaving disemboweled animal carcasses on his doorstep. Highlighted by Ervin’s lovely pacing, Ray’s search for identity in an Orwellian world he helped create is made compelling by the slow burn of his previous life in Chicago.
Ervin’s novel has a perfect amount of unexpected spookiness, due in large part to the mythos the people of Jura build up around their little island’s history. The most pervasive legend is that of the werewolf. Local teenager Molly explains how the island’s distiller, Farkas, claims to be the werewolf the men of Jura hunt every solstice and equinox: “It’s true, I swear to you. Even now when he drinks too much, which is, oh, every bloody day by my calculation—and you might know something about that yourself—whenever he has too much to drink he boasts that he’s responsible for killing all these animals. It’s like he’s proud of it. He gets quite wound up. That’s why he doesn’t join the hunting parties. Don’t laugh, Ray—I’m absolutely serious.” The serious treatment of such legends would be as laughable to the reader as it is to Ray if it weren’t for the normalizing details of Ray’s life in the secluded house—there’s something so totally ordinary about his lounging around dirty and unkempt, wearing nothing but underwear or a blanket. Ervin’s pace and ability to ground these legends places us as much in Ray’s head as Ray. Readers will want to join Ray in hiding under the covers from Jura’s horrors, because they’ll be just as frightened by the unexplained animal remains as he is.
Not only is something eviscerating animals on Jura, werewolf or not, but there’s also a very tangible danger present on the island. Molly’s father, Gavin Pitcairn, threatens real harm to Ray and other tourists. Ray hears that Pitcairn might have done something awful to others who have visited the island, and he has his own run-in with Pitcairn in which he’s left stranded in the water and swimming for his life. The threat of Pitcairn proves to be just as haunting to Ray as that of the werewolf.
Ray is a fascinating character because Ervin makes his flaws strangely endearing. He has Orwell on the brain, rages against a surveillance state, ponders Newspeak, and yet he jumps with alacrity into an advertising career that requires a significant amount of these things. Even in his spare time he works on projects that utilize them: “Some people played video games or watched sports. Ray invented a new platform from which a company like Logos could interface with its strategic partners and their would-be customers. He sought to utilize the Orwellian nature of social media and invent a profitable new method of corporation-consumer interactivity.” Such buzzwords smack of Newspeak. But his decision to leave is nuanced by his relationship with his wife, Helen, with whom things are falling apart largely due to his often questionable decision-making.
Ervin lets their relationship unfold naturally, one layer at a time, and it’s possibly the best-rendered bond in all of Burning Down, even though Helen gets so little page time. After finding yet another dead animal on his doorstep, Ray gets a shovel to bury it and contemplates his marriage: “His fingers grew calloused, but it was strange how easily he could slip off his wedding ring. Without giving it much further thought, he dropped it on top of the burlap sack and threw a pile of black dirt on top until the island itself swallowed the band of gold.” We see that Ray is at heart a good guy, but it takes quite a bit to dig through the alcoholism and savior complex to get there, so Ervin uses Jura to do the digging for us. Ultimately the reader will find Ray engaging, and Burning Down will appeal to those who have wondered what ditching our smart phones and laptops would do to make our lives less complicated. What geographically remote island could we retreat to for some peace of mind and, obviously, some world-class scotch?
(Read K.E. Semmel’s interview with Andrew Ervin here.)
Melanie J. Cordova is a PhD candidate in English at Binghamton University. She serves as editor in chief of Harpur Palate and has stories out or forthcoming with Blacktop Passages, Red Savina Review, Whitefish Review, The Oklahoma Review, Yemassee, and various others. You can follow her on Twitter via @mjcwrites.