The opening line of Dodie Smith’s 1949 novel I Capture The Castle is, for me, one of the best ever. Quirky and intriguing, it instantly pulls you in, entreating you to read on to find out exactly what the narrator is doing – and how she ended up there.
What Smith does so brilliantly here is to give us an immediate and powerful impression of the novel’s setting. This one line seems to encapsulate the romantically crumbling Godsend Castle, with its strange juxtaposition of the exotic and the mundane. Life at Godsend is a dizzying whirl of bohemian artists, genius writers, tea-gowns and musty old furs, with Clair de lune on the gramophone and the scent of Penhaligon’s Bluebell in the air. But, equally, it is a world that is tainted by poverty, hunger and uncertainty about the future.
The image of the heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, perched on the draining board, scribbling furiously in her journal, stands at odds with the loftier images that are evoked by the novel’s title. It is as if Smith is asserting that this will be no tale of aristocratic wealth and privilege – the Mortmains may live in a fairytale castle, but it is one that clearly languishes under a curse. Indeed, Godsend – with its crumbling turrets and leaky roof – reflects the family’s precarious social standing, with the unloved, dilapidated building functioning as a symbol for their decline.
I think the influence of setting runs deeper than that, though. Even if I choose to set my story somewhere entirely unrelated to where I am – or if I decide to fashion a fantasy world that’s entirely of my own invention – my environment is bound to influence my writing in some way.
As it happens, I’m writing this halfway up a mountain. Technically, I’m meant to be off risking life and limb at the local ski school, but today’s near-blizzard conditions mean that I’ve eschewed learning how to parallel turn and ‘bend zee knees’ in favour of getting on with some reading and writing (in between watching, from the comfort of the sofa, far more competent people than me compete in the Winter Olympics). Outside it’s positively Narnian – a virtual white-out. Pine trees cling tenaciously to the near-vertical mountainside, branches drooping under the weight of several inches of fresh snow. It all feels very different from London, with its flooded streets and overcast skies. And anything I write here will be different, too – even though, to all outward appearances, it will be part of the same story I’ve worked on for the past two years. I’ll still be writing about knights and pilgrims and shifty-looking innkeepers, but my writing will be somehow imbued with a sense of the Alpine landscape around me.
With this in mind, I thought I’d dedicate the rest of this post to a few MG and YA books I’ve read recently that strike me as having a particularly powerful sense of place. Although outwardly very different, they all share a sense of the setting springing off the page, almost becoming a character in its own right.
First up: The Fire Eaters: The industrial north-east really comes to life in this wonderful novel by David Almond, which I originally read as part of my MA. (Appropriately enough, I think it was for our seminar discussion on ‘Setting.’) Almond uses elements of magic realism to confound our expectations about his chosen location, the seaside town of Keely Bay. Far from being the fading, rather down-at-heel resort that it first appears, Keely Bay turns out to be steeped in wonder and mystery, home to a large cast of colourful characters, from McNulty, the eponymous fire eater, to Ailsa Spinks, a local girl whose family of sea-coalers cling doggedly to a set of dying traditions. Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s a novel that should in many ways be bleak, but ends up being anything but.
The brilliant Ingo books by Helen Dunmore are another example of a series where the setting takes centre stage. In this case, it’s quite literally immersive, as much of the action takes place under water! Dunmore’s writing evokes a vivid sense of the dangerous beauty of the Cornish coast, and she cleverly uses her dual settings of land and sea to establish Sapphire, her teenage heroine, as a literal fish out of water. Sapphire, it soon becomes clear, is far more comfortable discovering Ingo and befriending the ocean-dwelling Mer than she is living on land with her mother and far ‘earthier’ brother Connor. Once again, the reader is made to reconsider their preconceptions, as the ocean, while fraught with its own dangers, often seems to be a saner, more rational place than the land.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner. This book terrified me when I was ten, but it’s now among my all-time favourites – something that was very much confirmed when I reread it recently. Once again, the Welsh valley setting feels positively alive, with the landscape playing a pivotal role in the story. From the outset there is a sense of gathering menace: this is the kind of place where rugged beauty can very easily pitch into ugliness, and where ancient legends bubble just beneath the surface. What begins as an ordinary family holiday – an attempt to unite two step-families – soon becomes far more than that, as the novel’s three unwitting teenage protagonists are drawn into a struggle between supernatural forces that ultimately threatens their own survival. Garner plays with his setting, showing how a single landscape can be inspiring, chilling and stifling by turns, and exploring with considerable deftness the close relationship between nature and myth. Although published in 1967, the novel feels timeless, and I think the setting plays a big part in this.
I originally picked up Pat Walsh’s The Crowfield Curse – runner-up in the 2008 Chicken House/Times competition – because it spans the same historical period as my own novel. Set in the 14th century, it traces the fortunes of Will, an orphan who is taken in by a monastery to serve as an apprentice. Before long, Will stumbles across a strange creature that he calls The Hob, which in turn leads him to uncover sinister secrets relating to the abbey and its inhabitants. The historical aspects of the story are handled with a wonderful lightness of touch, but what struck me most was the way that Walsh brings her setting of Crowfield Abbey and its surrounding countryside to life. It’s a lively read with a great cast of characters, and I’m very much looking forward to catching up with the sequel, The Crowfield Demon.
How about you? Are there any books that have stayed with you because of their especially vivid or atmospheric settings?