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.
Pilgrim Jones has done something shameful: crashed her car into a bus stop and killed three young children, although she has no memory of doing so. Did she swerve to avoid the dog and lose control of the vehicle or, consumed by anger and self-pity after being dumped by her human-rights lawyer husband, was she reckless? Certainly her neighbours in the small Swiss town of Arnau consider her a child murderer and, despite the sympathy of the police, she realises she has to get away. With no particular plan, she flies to Tanzania and, dropping out of a safari, pitches up in Magulu, a shabby village on the road to nowhere, with one bus out a week. Here she finds herself a world away from her former travels with her ex-husband, from her role as a diplomatic wife. Here, where the doctor has no medicine, the policeman no power to uphold the law, violence or the threat of it is ever presence at the periphery of her vision (p82/83):
It’s been another hectic week on the blog tour: sharing the novels that have helped me find a mind of my own with Urszula Humienik; examining how contemporary novels feature scientific research with Gargi Mehra; talking attachment with Safia Moore stemming from my character’s difficulty in “telling a story about when you were a little girl”; confessing and commiserating with Clare O’Dea regarding our shared difficulty in articulating what our novel’s about; to come to port on Friday with Lori Schafer to address the question of how much my novel might be autobiographical.
After my weekend in a virtual California, I’m heading northward today to join lead buckaroo, Charli Mills on her fabulous Carrot Ranch in Idaho. She’d already set my place at the table with this lovely introduction on her blog. I’m heading back to the UK for the rest of the week, stopping off first with novelist and psychologist Voula Grand, who was the first to feature in my series Psychologists Write, to explore a shared interest in transgenerational trauma, both on and off the page. Then it’s a second guest post (the first, on Day One of the tour, being on debuting as an older author) with my publishers, Inspired Quill, to reveal my responses to the thoughtful questions put to me by one of the team, Hannah Drury. With all this travelling I wonder if I’ll have time to tidy up before Thursday, when I’ll be showing everyone around my Writers’ Room, courtesy of novelist, former prison governor and Costa Short Story Award winner, Avril Joy. Friday, I’ll be hot-footing it to London to join novelist, blogging addict and reader of an early version of Sugar and Snails, Geoff LePard, for a post on how walking facilitates my writing with, hopefully, a few photographs of the walk that features in my novel. (Yikes, did he realise that’s the day he launches his second novel, My Father and Other Liars, or is his attention to me an excuse to avoid a launch party?)
If I was breathless last Monday, announcing Week 1 of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I must be on the verge of a swoon this week as I begin another round of visits. The first week has gone brilliantly (you can catch up with those first five posts via the links on my blog tour page), so how could I not be excited about the second? I start today under Julie Stock’s Author Spotlight, with a piece about setting part of my novel in Cairo. As a writer of contemporary romance from around the world, Julie has a particular interest in the challenges of setting fiction in real places, the subject of her own post on Susanna Bavin’s blog this week. Tomorrow, Helena Fairfax is interviewing me about where my own life is set, among other things. Helen lives in an interesting place herself, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and former mill town, Saltaire, which you can discover more about in her fascinating post. Then I’m off to chat with my namesake, Shaz Goodwin on Jera’s Jamboree. With her day job as a school Inclusion Lead, I was interested in her interest in novels that tackle a social barrier, as Sugar and Snails most definitely does. On Thursday, I’m on Our Book Reviews discussing the various transformations of my novel from its initial inception as a story of masculinity across three generations. This post arose out of a Twitter conversation after Mary, one half of Our Book Reviews, read and reviewed an advance copy. Obviously, I was delighted to be invited back. Finally, Friday sees me in Australia, quite fittingly discussing the theme of friendship in the novel and in its realisation (extending the theme of my previous post on gratitude) with one of my dearest blogging friends, Norah Colvin. As Norah has already hosted me once before, I know the tour bus will be safe to leave there over the weekend until I get behind the wheel again on Monday.
I’m generally not in favour of “update” posts, but I can’t ignore the perspective shift since I posted five days ago. As of last Thursday, I’m a published novelist, and enjoying it immensely. With each review (six to my knowledge so far), with each supportive tweet at #SugarandSnails, I’m claiming more of my authorial authority. I’m even infiltrating the more traditional media, with a feature on Sugar and Snails in the Lincolnshire Echo and a nerve-wracking but not too dreadful outing on BBC Radio Nottingham (my bit is at about 2.15 p.m. and the link expires in about three weeks). The highlight of the last few days was, of course, my Nottingham launch party, which I’ll be sharing more about in due course. But in the meantime, there’s this lovely and unexpected post on the event from The Mole, the other half of Our Book Reviews.
Two twelve-year-olds from separate states are abducted and kept for six weeks in a cabin in the woods. The girls are strangely compliant, fearful of what might happen but excited to be plucked from their neglectful parents and dreary lives. Spelling-bee champion, Lois, and beauty-pageant veteran, Carly-May, crave adult attention, and are thrilled to find themselves chosen, competing and cooperating for the approval of their kidnapper, the mysterious Zed.
Decades later, they know they’re damaged by the experience, although unsure exactly how. Lois has become a university lecturer, specialising in nineteenth century English literature, with a secret side-line as a writer of popular fiction. Carly-May has reinvented herself as Chloe, an actor too pretty to be taken seriously, still hankering after a more intellectually challenging part.
Nancy and Bernadette have spent every summer at the remote farm where their mother grew up. Despite the sullen nature of their uncle, Donn, and the religiosity of their aunt, Agatha, who returned from training to be a nun to keep house for him, it’s an idyllic place to a ten and twelve-year-old from London. But the bond between the sisters is weakening, as Nancy, now at the comprehensive school, wants to play at being a grown-up. And there are far darker forces at work than sibling rivalries. For in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the English are unwelcome in certain parts and a lonely farm has every chance of being co-opted into the undercover war.
Thirty years later, having barely spoken to each other since childhood, the sisters return to the farm with their families on the pretext of seeing the place for one last time before it’s sold. It starts badly: Nancy’s American husband is both overly chatty and bored; Bernie is critical of her sister’s hypervigilance around Nancy’s fourteen-year-old son, who appears to have some kind of attention-deficit disorder (p79):
Lulu Davenport is the proprietor of Los Rocques, a clifftop hotel on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, frequented by a certain type wealthy Brit who holds themselves aloof from the package-tour hordes. It’s also a popular hangout for the teenagers who spend their summers on the island, roaming freely after months of more orderly education abroad. For almost sixty years, Gerald Rutledge has lived in a small house just a kilometre away from The Rocks (as everyone calls it), but he’s rarely set foot on the premises. It’s not just because, having married a local woman and made his living from the land, he’s more assimilated into the Spanish community, but also because he’s persona non grata to Lulu following their brief and calamitous marriage only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
Sorting through the effects of her beloved grandmother, Mariam, shortly after her death, British journalist, Katerina Knight, discovers a wooden spice box containing a journal and stack of handwritten letters. The documents are written in Armenian, a language which neither Katerina nor her mother understands but, on holiday in Cyprus, Katerina meets a handsome young man who offers to translate them. Mariam’s scribbles tell of relatives lost to slaughter and exile in the 1915 Armenian genocide, of a fortuitous rescue by an English couple and a country childhood ending with another lost love. Meanwhile, Gabriel, an elderly Armenian living in Nicosia, exiled a second time with the partitioning of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish sectors, is bemoaning his granddaughter’s engagement to a man from outside the community, perceiving it as a betrayal of her origins, as cultural genocide, although one of his drinking friends advises tolerance (p175-6):
‘Let go of the past, my friend. All that stored up resentment isn’t good for the soul.’
‘The past is not like water in a toilet bowl. It can’t be flushed away. It’s a septic tank growing more rancid by the day.’
The reader discovers before he does Gabriel’s link to Mariam and Katerina, and from that point the novel is driven by the question of whether these characters will finally connect.
finding truth through fiction
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 three fiction books.
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