Let’s take a look at a couple of debut novels with some fine evocations of the natural world and a strong sense of place published by small independent presses based in Scotland.
I’ve enjoyed these two novels from established female British writers exploring a possible future. The first speculates on the consequences of climate change and a low birthrate, whereas the second subverts gender politics imagining a world in which women have no reason to be afraid of men.
Read on, and see which takes your fancy!
Country (dis)connections: The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop & His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay
For my first post of meteorological autumn, I bring you two novels with a strong sense of season and climate. But what particularly connects them is their explorations of how conflicting attachments to place risks fragmenting family life. The first takes us from England to Australia, with a brief visit to India, and the second back and forth between Canada and the USA, so between them these novels cover a large proportion of the English-speaking world.
Less than a week after I published my post on how we relate to fictional characters as if they were real, I was chatting to a farmer out on the moors. He was on his quad bike looking for some motorbikers who’d trespassed on the land that feeds his sheep and cows; I was patrolling on foot enjoying the sunshine and wildlife and hoping the next people I asked to put their dog on a lead would comply. We spoke about the impact of the human footprint (and tyre) on the changing landscape, and he referred to other farmers he knew in tourist hotspots who have to contend with far more visitors. Ever conscious of my limited countryside knowledge, I wanted to tell him that I knew a farmer too. But I didn’t, because the farmer I had in mind lives in a book. So I’m telling you instead. As Norah commented on my cognitive poetics post, finding a suitable channel to sound off about our reading is part of the motivation for writing blogs.
The violence behind the beauty: The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James & Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Emma and her friend Teddy are Americans visiting a forest reserve in southern India, to make a wildlife documentary about an innovative method of reuniting lost or injured baby elephants with their mothers. Manu, the younger son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the alluring world of ivory hunting following the death of his cousin by a rogue elephant. After being orphaned by poachers and kept in captivity and worked as a temple elephant, the Gravedigger has escaped his chains and is causing havoc in the villages on the edge of the forest. Through these three strands, Tania James tells an engaging and moving story of the conflicting interests in nature conservation. It’s testament to her talent as a writer that it is possible to feel sympathy for each of the flawed characters in this novel, even when none of them come out particularly well – except maybe the elephant who is, after all, just being an elephant.
Out walking at the weekend, the latest post from Charli Mills was preying on my mind. She’s writing about feeling lost, and challenging us to write a 99-word story on the subject. I can do that, I think. Despite being trained in navigation, I often get lost out on the hills. But there’s another kind of lost that’s more than geographical; as a psychologist and writer, I’m interested in lost as a state of mind.
I set out on Sunday in territory less familiar than my usual stomping ground, only intermittently checking my progress against the map. Avoiding a crowd of noisy cattle, I plunged through shoulder-high bracken, soaking my trousers with the residue of the previous day’s rain. I headed for a path I thought I recognised only to realise, ten minutes later, the rest of the topography didn’t fit. But I pressed on, seesawing between anxiety and excitement. I love discovering new corners of the landscape, finding enormous satisfaction in the moment when the strange intersects with the known. But there’s an edge of concern that I’ll delve too far into unknown territory, that I won’t make it back to base in time.
Writing last week from the hospital bedside of her dear friend, Charli Mills invited Rough Writers to compose a 99-word story featuring a rose. I immediately thought of a scene from my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, in which the main character, Diana, looks back on her childhood. There’s not much of a narrative arc in this episode, but I thought I’d share it anyway, slightly amended, although it works better in context where it gains an additional layer of meaning:
“Don’t think it’s all a bed of roses,” said my mother, handing me the potato peeler and nudging me towards the sink.
Since my sister had left home, I’d taken to helping out with cooking and cleaning. I didn’t mind, but I was embarrassed that my mother would think I was hankering after a future as a housewife. It seemed to me that a bed of roses summed up my mother’s life exactly: perfumed petals imprisoned within a tangle of thorns. I wanted to ramble beyond the pot of soil in which she’d planted me. I wanted to bloom.
The war is barely a year old when James is shot down on his first bombing mission. Incarcerated in a POW camp, he vows to use his time productively. Instead of digging escape tunnels from which he’d inevitably be recaptured, James dedicates himself to a detailed study of a pair of redstarts nesting beyond the barbed wire. He records his observations in a notebook and in letters home to his wife. Yet the only person who really seems to understand his passion is the camp commandant.
Only six months married before James was summoned to fight for his country, Rose is bored by her husband’s letters, barely able to bring herself to open them, let alone reply. Alone in a tiny cottage on the tip of the Ashdown Forest not far from where she grew up, she spends her time roaming with her dog and patrolling as an ARP warden to safeguard the blackout. She’s wondered about her loneliness for some time: at first she thought it was missing James but now it seems an existential condition. And she’s found a way to soothe it in her secret meetings with Toby, on sick leave from the war.
Then James’s elder sister, Enid, is bombed out of her London flat and, with nowhere else to go, she foists herself upon Rose. With her own guilty secret, Enid isn’t the best of houseguests, while Rose is far from the perfect host. The women have more in common than they think, but their different loyalties to James prevents them becoming friends.
Tom Berry is a forester in northern Canada. He’s a decent chap, drawn to the wilderness, trying to do right by his family and his employees. But he doesn’t really do feelings, and feelings are what he needs to guide him when his grown-up son, Curtis, is stuck in despair about some woman. Instead of listening, the ever-practical Tom sets to work on repairing a leaking tap.
At nineteen, Tom wasn’t ready for fatherhood. Four years on, he wasn’t ready for his unstable wife to leave him with young Curtis and his four-month-old sister, Erin. But he thinks he’s done okay, raising them to be independent, teaching them the countryside survival skills he values. It irks him that Curtis has never been much of a hunter, that teenage Erin now prefers to keep to her room. But he accepts that his kids are reaching the age when they’ll no longer needed him, when he’ll be free to retreat to the cabin in the forest he’s always dreamt of; perhaps, if he’s lucky, his part-time girlfriend, Carolina, will join him there.
When Charli Mills posted her flash fiction prompt at the end of last week to write a 99-word story that includes a vice, I thought it would be easy. Isn’t a vice just another notch along a continuum that leads from quirky through the compulsory character flaws to the evil villains we love to hate? But I’ve struggled. I didn’t have a character waiting in the wings of my to-be-reviewed and to-be-read piles I could pounce on or, at least, not one I could persuade to perform.
Kicking off with a conversation about marijuana, I expected Charli’s post to ignite a galaxy of ideas. Yet we know, even if vicariously, it’s a drug that tends to lull the senses. Even though I have a dope-smoking narrator in my possibly-second novel, Underneath, it’s a minor transgression relative to what else he gets up to, put there to give him something to do with his hands while he’s waiting for his girlfriend to come back to bed. And although there’s a drug dealer in Lisa McInerney’s audacious debut, and I’ve mentioned crack in the heading of my review, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate (all these different names for drugs do confuse me) but there is purely for the alliteration. Fact is, I’m not terribly interested in mood-altering substances, whether legal or otherwise, and it took me a little longer than I might have expected to lose myself in Tim Winton’s magnificent Eyrie because it kicks off with the hangover from hell.
When invited to lead a controversial project reintroducing the grey wolf as a natural predator into the English countryside, Rachel Caine initially declines. She is happy keeping her native Cumbria at a distance, happy heading up the team monitoring wolves in the true wilderness of Nez Perce, Idaho. But, when her mother dies and a drunken night with one of her colleagues takes the relationship too far, she decides to accept the Earl of Annerdale’s offer. The new job, while geographically on a smaller scale, heralds new challenges for Rachel as she grapples with the manners and politics of the country set while confronting the memories of a difficult mother-daughter relationship evoked by the landscape that formed her. The Wolf Border explores the territory bounded by country-house fiction, the natural world, capitalist politics and impending motherhood with some of the finest writing on human and elemental wilderness, for example in an Idaho winter (p68):
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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