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Feature Friday - The Cambridge of House Of Windows

14 Aug 2015
Feature Friday is a feature on Bookish Treasures that spotlights an author through either a guest post or interview so that they can share something special about their books or their path to publication.

Today's feature is a guest post from author Alexia Casale whose most recent novel House Of Windows has just released.

 

House Of Windows by Alexia Casale



Synopsis

'The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us.' Robert Louis Stevenson

Nick hates it when people call him a genius. Sure, he's going to Cambridge University aged 15, but he says that's just because he works hard. And, secretly, he only works hard to get some kind of attention from his workaholic father.

Not that his strategy is working.

When he arrives at Cambridge, he finds the work hard and socialising even harder. Until, that is, he starts to cox for the college rowing crew and all hell breaks loose...


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The Cambridge in House Of Windows


I’ve spent time in the countryside around Cambridge since my teens. Both my parents travelled a lot so periodically I would decamp to my very kind (and much put upon) aunt and uncle on the border of Essex and Cambridgeshire. I’d largely refused to go to school since I was 13, so swapping houses was less of an issue than it might have been. Off I’d go to my poor beknighted relatives only to promptly disappear on adventures. Where does this path lead? What’s behind those trees. Ooooo, pretty flowers – are there more? What a lovely chimney! And so on. (I also discovered the local sewage works, so it wasn’t all ‘romance of the wild’.)
 
After school, I was lucky enough to get into Cambridge – the first person from my College ever to do so. It was like stepping into a book. Like living in a stately home. It was a privilege and an honour and so intensely dream-like I still can’t quite believe it happened. Whenever I go back I look up at my old Trinity Hall Front Court window and try to persuade myself that I lived there – me! It doesn’t seem possible. But that is what Cambridge I, at least in part: a leap into the past as well as into your own future. I still dream of how vividly I felt the need to hold on to the time ticking away. How deeply I felt the need to appreciate every last second. How important I knew it was not waste or squander or ignore any part of it.
 
But life is always more than where you live, however grotty or glorious. The physical world of the University is joy in solid form: in stone and brick and earth and wood and petals and water. But it’s still the external world and no amount of beauty is enough to fill a person’s internal world, however grateful they are for what they have.
 
That is one of the key things I wanted to capture in Nick, the protagonist of House of Windows. That and the juxtaposition of the wonder of the University buildings and grounds to its human side. Modern Cambridge University is an awkward mix of the cutting edge and the traditional. The result is a lot of out-and-out silliness: an entire language that you have no choice but to learn and use because otherwise you’re marked as an outsider – and excluded as one. It doesn’t matter if you think the whole thing is stonkingly stupid: almost everyone does. You quickly learn there’s a silent agreement that everyone will play along: that you’re in it together, being a bit ridiculous but being part of something. The thing that makes it palatable is that over-time the bigoted parts of Cambridge’s traditions are being worn away and so it’s more like a series of daft but harmless in-jokes. And it’s quite nice to know all the in-jokes at a party. Especially if you’re a lonely nerdy weirdo freak – as most people at Cambridge are. I wanted to show that Nick sees all these strange rules and traditions for what they are – but at the same time, views them with fond disdain. That’s what being a modern Cambridge student is about: donning silly robes and laughing with a bunch of other people wearing the same as you all stand about being daft together in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
 
One of the ways these things come out is in the particular type of ‘humour’ you find at Cambridge. It’s almost always a bit too clever for its own good. And in the case of some people, it’s out and out offensive. But most of the time it’s just like everything else – a series of silly rather than truly funny in-jokes that become funny because you’re on the inside: for once, you’re party of the club. You get it. And I wanted to capture that because it is so much a part of being a member of the University. Not everyone at Cambridge is an antisocial loner, but almost everyone has had a rough time at school at some point because of their intelligence and/or academic ambition, so Cambridge is full of people who at a social level want to be part of a crowd. We’re also people who spend a lot of time being serious and studious – and often punished for it – so it’s a relief to find somewhere you be as silly as possible.
 
It’s against this backdrop that Nick tries, and often fails, to enjoy being a student. He’s spent years hoping that at Cambridge he’ll finally find like-minded people, but it doesn’t prove easy, given that he’s still only fifteen. I expect lots of people are like Nick – like me – in looking forward to university as the place everything will fall into place, but like expectations of first love university isn’t an instant pathway to easy friendship or anything else (except alcohol). So Nick continues to find himself lonely in a crowd, an issue not helped by the fact that he has to ‘live out’ because of his age: unlike everyone else who has rooms in College (or Halls of Residence), Nick lives a mile away in a house his father has just bought as the new ‘family home’. Only they’re not much of a family so it’s not much of a home. It’s just another very nice place to spent his time. The beauty of Cambridge lifts his spirits but there’s always a melancholy edge to it not just of time fleeting, but because there’s no one to share it with. Nick’s situation may be unusual, but his feelings of hope and disappointment, joy and loneliness, are very much part of the student experience for almost everyone at some stage or another. As Nick slowly comes to see, maybe his situation as unique as he always thought. And maybe he isn’t quite so strange and different as he feels.
 
University is a time and place for learning new things and ‘finding yourself’, but also for discovering that other people’s lives may look very different on the surface, but feelings are pretty much universal. After all, growing up is only partly about coming into our own as unique individuals: it’s also about realising we’re not as different on the inside as we often assume.

 

About the Author

 
A British-American citizen of Italian heritage, Alexia is an author, editor and writing consultant. She also teaches English Literature and Writing.

After an MA in Social & Political Sciences (Psychology major) then MPhil in Educational Psychology & Technology, both at Cambridge University, she took a break from academia and moved to New York. There she worked on a Tony-award-winning Broadway show before returning to England to complete a PhD and teaching qualification. In between, she worked as a West End script-critic, box-office manager for a music festival and executive editor of a human rights journal.

She’s not sure which side of the family her dyslexia comes from, but is resigned to the fact that madness runs in both. She loves cats, collects glass animals and interesting knives, and has always wanted a dragon.

Alexia is represented by Claire Wilson of Rogers, Coleridge & White.

Her debut novel, The Bone Dragon, is published in English by Faber & Faber, and in German by Carlsen.

1 comment:

  1. This was a fascinating insight into House of Windows - even the story behind the story had me captivated! Now to read the real thing.

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