Landscapes by Christine Lai

One of the most beautifully chilling novels I’ve read this year was Landscapes by Christine Lai. Sad and haunting, it’s set in a sort of near-future where climate change has won, and people are fleeing for better lives somewhere else.

In a crumbling English manor house, Penelope and Aidan have spent much of the last twenty years living amongst the house’s impressive art collection – Aidan is a son of the house, and Penelope his partner the caretaker of the dwindling art collection. The house also serves as a refuge for others displaced or on the move from the climate crisis.  However, they’ve finally sold the house, no longer able to keep up the property, and are preparing to move out in the spring, before the house is torn down by the new buyer.

“This was one of my top books read this year.”

The novel is written as Penelope’s journal entries in the final months at the manor, interspersed with her descriptions of the remaining items in the house. Penelope details her memories of the house, the people who live there now, and her dread about seeing Julian, Aidan’s estranged brother, set to come home for a final visit. After a violent encounter, Julian was cut out of Penelope’s and Aidan’s lives, and this pivotal visit uncovers carefully hidden pain and shared experiences.

Lai’s writing is exquisite. Lush and personal, it’s also wonderfully poetic and perfectly melancholy. Penelope is a complex narrator, though quiet – to be honest, this is exactly the kind of writing and characters to pull me into a book, and Lai was more than successful with her nostalgia-tinged journal-of-a-climate-crisis. The way memory and art are used here as ways to try and sort out what’s happening – and happened, to bring them to this point.

I was swept up in Penelope’s journal entries and the description of different items in the house. So many novels which deal with that near-future/dystopian setting have that sudden moment of change, while Landscapes deals with a much slower, plodding decline from the society we knew to the one we don’t. Even the process of preparing to leave takes months, and Penelope knows exactly when it’s going to happen – rather than a forced split-second event. The drawn-out nature leaves room to grieve but also to highlight the way Penelope – and by extension, us – have already spent so much time thinking about how things have changed, watching our world slowly drift from us.

Lai weaves the modern, climate change dystopia, with what we might consider a more traditional kind of story, one about a stately manor in the English countryside. Together, these threads become a spellbinding and unsettling story, and one told with such incredible care and beauty. This was one of my top books read this year, and I highly recommend it for a quietly creepy read, especially in the late fall.

CHRISTINE LAI grew up in Canada and lived in England for six years during graduate studies. She holds a PhD in English Literature from University College London. Landscapes was shortlisted for the inaugural Novel Prize, offered by New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Giramondo Publishing. Christine currently lives in Vancouver.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Doubleday Canada (May 23 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 296 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 038568424X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0385684248