Your characters are acquiring quirks and foibles. You’ve got an arc, however wobbly, from beginning to end. A couple of twists are lurking in your sleeves and you’ve got a sentence, or maybe more, that sings. But your setting’s an empty stage, or weighed down with enough clutter to break the boards. Perhaps it’s time for a real-world site inspection visit to check out what your novel does and doesn’t need. Read on for my reflections on how best to go about it, stemming from my (not-so-)recent trip to Cumbria to soak up the atmosphere and check a few facts for my hopefully third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
I’ve recently been reading two second novels in which a woman sets out to uncover a family’s tragic secret lodged within a large historic house, aided and abetted by a presence that might or might not be a ghost. In the first, the woman and her husband buy a crumbling manor house as a weekend retreat from London; in the second, the woman is employed in the London mansion as carer for a man who can’t throw anything away. Both have strong voices and characterisation, with beautiful descriptions, but differ sufficiently that you could happily read both. For other novels about mysterious houses see Fell by Jenn Ashworth and post What’s haunting these houses?
Has my country always been this conflicted, or is the second decade of the twenty-first century a particularly sour time for England? Can fiction help us understand our current disaffected state? If so, these two very different novels – the first a gentle exploration of fear of difference among the largely white population; the second addressing the attractions of Islamic State to young people of South Asian descent, and its more violent repercussions – might help.
If we leave home at eighteen, it’s often to a particular kind of institution. For me, as for Selin in The Idiot, that means university; for Billy Lynn, as for many young working-class adults who are less academically inclined, it’s the military. While, as Selin discovers, universities encourage questioning, not all questions are received with equal relish. On the other hand, as Billy learns, the army might discourage independent thought, it can’t prevent his wondering. Will these young people find the answers they’re looking for? Read on!
With my shameful disregard for non-fiction, I glean many of my facts from fiction. So I was delighted to receive advance copies of two debut novels published this month that I hoped would extend my knowledge of shameful periods of Australian and Scottish history that still resonate to this day. Lucy Treloar and Mhairead McLeod have woven engaging stories around historical facts of land appropriation in the 19th century. Although my reviews focus more on the psychological aspects, these novels clearly articulate the socio-political context of the European colonisation of Australia in Salt Creek and the Highland Clearances in The False Men.
I didn’t expect to pair these two novels. I’d already begun reading another Second World War novel to accompany The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, and The Angel in The Stone was going to wait for another novel on mental health. But the latter seemed a good fit for the latest flash fiction challenge and, as I’ve mentioned recently, it’s fun to find unexpected links. Both these novels feature families across three generations; address conflict between brothers; are wholly or partly set in Scotland; and showcase the characters’ musical tastes. Both fictional families have hidden some of their history from the younger generation in a manner that makes life just that little bit harder. Read on, and see what you think.
Allow me to introduce you to two novels looking back on Ireland’s recent history through the eyes of a man whose life has been limited by secrets, subterfuge and hypocrisy.
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.
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.
Like Workington and Barrow, Morecambe is a small, slightly rundown, coastal town in north-west England to which I have personal connections: my parents lived there for many years and, coincidentally, one of my good friends, whom I met in Cairo, has a house overlooking the bay which, for a short while, she ran as a guesthouse. Although I don’t refer to it by name, it’s also one of the settings, along with Nottingham, for my forthcoming novel, Underneath. So when I discovered Owl Song at Dawn was set in Morecambe, I was keen to read it. I was even happier to be offered a slot on the blog tour when the author agreed to write a post on the setting. I hope you enjoy Emma Claire Sweeney’s piece as much as I did. My mini review follows at the end.
It’s not unusual for a novel to tell a story from different viewpoints, or from the same point-of-view character at different points and/or places of their lives. Some writers take this a stage further, structuring their novels as a series of related but stand-alone short stories, gradually building up to a whole. Examples among my reviews are This Beautiful, The Green Road, Sophie Stark, Prosperity Drive and Vertigo. Now I’ve found a couple more, in which the disparate narratives combine to create a sense of place.
What does the working-class child aspire to? In my case, I couldn’t dream of joining a middle-class profession I’d never heard of. Nor, even though I was addicted to writing from the start, did I believe that someone like me could become an author. Books never seemed to be based in the places with which I was familiar: they were set in boarding schools rather than comprehensives; in country houses rather than a small semi-detached; in cities rather than small industrial towns. So how could I resist a novel set in my birthplace, the small northern town from which my odd accent derives? As if that weren’t enough, I’m offered a novel set where my parents grew up, a similar down-at-heel out-of-the-way place where I had my first restaurant meal. Sixty miles separates these two towns, as well as some breath-taking countryside, as depicted in The Wolf Border, one of my favourite reads from last year. But Workington and Barrow don’t have the beauty of the Lake District. Thanks to Vintage Books and Legend Press, I had the chance to discover whether they could nevertheless shine on the page. I’d be interested in your thoughts on using real places as fictional settings.
It’s August 1985, and Ananda, a student of English at the University of Central London with aspirations to be a poet, has a whole day to fill. We follow him reluctantly get out of bed, fret about the neighbours’ noise, miss his mother who has recently returned to Bombay, attend a meeting with his tutor, and hang out with his equally eccentric uncle, Rangamama, as they separately reminisce and bicker about their lives. Their territory is Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a world of disappointing Indian restaurants, public transport, and potentially racist drunks. Inveterate outsiders, not just in London but in Asia, too: their Sylheti Hindu heritage having been twice rebranded (first with Partition, then with Bangladeshi independence) and leaving a legacy of “Indian” restaurants and the revered poet, Tagore. Desperately unhappy, the two men cling to each other despite their differences, Ananda possibly seeing his empty future in his uncle.
It’s hard to know what to make of a novel comprised of all the minute quotidian detail that most novels would cut out. There are touches of humour, and I especially enjoyed this exposition on the lack of reference to lavatorial necessities in Western film and literature (p128-9):
A severe cold has meant very little writing in the last few days, but a copious amount of reading (completing my reading “challenge” of 100 books in the year), albeit with not a great amount of depth. These three short reviews of novels about three very different women’s quests for a life, and a mind, of their own is part of the result.
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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