Burning Down George Orwell’s House by Andrew Ervin is a novel about one man’s extreme escape from the material world. Running away to the edge of the world in an attempt to fall off the grid and escape his life, Ray Welter lands on the Isle of Jura, Scotland at George Orwell’s former cottage, Barnhill. Ray chooses Barnhill as his escape for a reason. Orwell’s novel 1984 is Ray’s favorite book; a first edition is Ray’s most valued possession. Ray believes Orwell foresaw not only the future of humankind but also his own life within the pages of the famous Orwellian novel.
Ray Welter is not an easy character to like. He is tedious, a bit single minded in his actions, at one moment rude and the next apologetic, and he has a tendency of coming off as pathetic. These negative attributes work in Ray’s favor. He fits in with his surroundings on the Isle of Jura. The locals don’t want him, an outsider, amongst them, but Ray doesn’t want to be among them either. It is the abundance of strange, rude, obstinate, and threatening characters that blend making Ray and his neighbors likable and understandable.
The multitudes of strange characters bring out the worst and possibly best in Ray Welter. It is these interactions that make Burning Down George Orwell’s House fun to read. The characters hint of strange occurrences happening on the island. There are suggestions of a nocturnal, possible supernatural, beast roaming the isle. However, the locals will not divulge details to an outsider. Of the strange characters, the memory of George Orwell fills a space as someone Ray believes he can relate with. One gets a sense that maybe even Orwell never fit in with the residents of Jura either.
I was drawn into this novel from the beginning. Andrew Ervin’s description of landscape and characters was intense. I could feel the damp weather seeping through Ervin’s words and Ervin seems to have a knack for creating characters with strange idiosyncrasies that one grows to like. I would have given Burning Down George Orwell’s House a perfect score had Ervin continued focusing on the strange characters of Jura and the remote landscape of the Scottish isle; unfortunately, Ervin segued in the middle of the novel back to Ray Welter’s life before Jura. In this backstory section, that took too many pages, Ervin covered information that was already implied in his first few chapters. This dampened my momentum to continue reading. It was a bit difficult reviving my earlier enthusiasm for Burning Down George Orwell’s House when the novel swung back around to the present and Jura. Eventually, I did get back to the intrigue I felt at the beginning of the novel and that remained until the end.
Despite the slow mid-section, Burning Down George Orwell’s House is well written and an engaging and worthwhile read. I would encourage the reader to skim through the backstory to get back to the real meat of the novel. Everything that happens on Jura is engrossing giving this novel a satisfying feeling in the end.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Soho Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.