Today's column for the Sunday Guardian
If you were to ask readers about their favourite books, the answers would almost always be those set against a backdrop vividly brought to life. That is what Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta, Harper Lee’s Maycomb or even the sleepy English village of Richmal Crompton’s William Brown have in common. Such is the power of a strong sense of place, an art that the best novelists use not just to serve as a background for their characters, but also to establish a living, breathing presence that stalks through the pages.
You’ll find this in Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, with his evocation of the wide-horizoned prairie across the American border. Arriving in Saskatchewan in the second half of the book, the narrator finds no hills, no landmarks and few trees: “The course of the sun would be what told you where you were — that and whatever you personally knew about: a road, a fence line, the regular direction the wind came from”. Clearly, it’s an environment that shapes the lives of those in it.
Another recent example is Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care. Here, the narrator, an Indian journalist, goes on a slow ramble through the forests and cities of Guyana, in the process evoking its rhythms, landscapes, patois and colonial legacy. Little wonder that it was awarded the Ondaatje Award for the book that best captures “the spirit of a place”.
Saskatchewan and Guyana are, of course, all too real, but some of the most resonant locations in novels have been invented. Take R.K. Narayan’s sleepy South Indian town of Malgudi, Thomas Hardy’s destiny-laden Wessex and William Faulkner’s race-divided Yoknapatawpha County – each one made-up, although a composite of real places. These writers returned to these sites time and again in their work: establishing a suitable backdrop was vital in foregrounding themes close to their hearts.
James Joyce, on the other hand, was too busy inventing language and form to invent a place as well. In the process, he memorialized the city of his birth by trying to encompass all of “dear, dirty Dublin” in Dubliners and then in Ulysses. As he famously boasted, if the city was ever to be destroyed, it could be recreated again from the pages of the latter work. (Perhaps not in real life, but certainly in memory.)
The stories in Dubliners are linked by their location as well as the working out of common themes. For other short story collections, authors sometimes find it useful to establish a place – usually drawn from their childhoods – that serves as a setting for colourful characters who step forward with their stories. This was V.S. Naipaul’s technique in Miguel Street, as well as that of Rohinton Mistry in Tales from Firozeshah Bagh.
Often, places that are compelling on the page aren’t all that dramatic in real life – it’s the writer’s art that makes them so. Consider the humdrum, conventional nature of the American suburbs, and look at the use the trio of Yates, Cheever and Updike made of them.
Film and TV directors have long known of the hypnotic power of an appropriate sense of place. Take Woody Allen’s New York, for example – or even the manner in which he creates the ill-lit squares, streets and parlours of a murky and altogether Kafkaesque East European town in Shadows and Fog (shot, naturally, in black-and-white). In recent TV shows, the rain-sodden Seattle of The Killing or the forbidding icy wastes and power-thirsty imperial cities of Game of Thrones are so integral to the plots that the shows would be inconceivable without them.
In her classic 1956 essay on the subject, Eudora Welty called a sense of place “one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction”. That’s a memorable way of drawing attention to it, but, as these examples and more go on to show, it’s an angel that’s at least the equivalent of all the others that preside over the writer’s desk.