Sometimes it seems as though there are only two types of books: those that can be described as plot-driven, and others that are seen as character-driven. But what if still others are as much driven by place, in which character and plot emerge fully formed from the landscape?
I’m halfway through Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Neither British nor contemporary – any longer – it does deal exceptionally well with place. In fact, I would go so far to say that the story is a story of place above all else. The human and ovine characters (there are a lot of sheep) feel transient, incidental. They are formed of the black peat, and their stories are rooted in the marshy turf. Their hopes and tribulations meander on the sticky beck at the valley’s floor. The valley itself has a history, and previous events, centuries old, cling to the stones, ominous and foreboding. The menace that drives the book lurks under the cairn marking the pass above the perennially dismal Summerhouses; menace hangs from the blue mountains that fade into and out of view with the weather.
The evocation of place is one of the most direct routes into a novel’s universe. This is unsurprising: all stories take place (the word is everywhere) in space as well as time. When we visualise a character, the ground they stand on is solid. Every dark and stormy night rages somewhere.
That is not to suggest that good novels are always set in real places, either now or in the past; just that the ground on which they play out should be able to bear the reader’s weight. Nor does it equate good writing with lengthy descriptions of landscape, any more than strong characterisation can only be achieved through the detailed description of a protagonist’s face. As with character, we need to recognise a place, either from our memory or our imagination; as with plot, place needs to be solid, believable.
From sweeping landscapes of Icelandic moors to the more mundane environs of a West Midlands shopping centre: in Catherine O’Flynn’s 2007 debut, What Was Lost, place is almost indistinguishable from character and plot. The characters do not simply occupy the space, they are occupied by it. The missing girl ghosts through the darkened arcades and service corridors as if buried in the foundations. But while the evocation of a space I occupied relentlessly in my own teenage years was powerful enough, it is the ghost of the derelict industrial space that lies beneath it that stays with me most powerfully. To this day I do not know to what the title refers, what it was that O’Flynn most feels was lost.
Grounding stories in place, rooting them in landscape and the myths they hold, has been a central concern in my own writing. My first novel evolved from a story told to me amid the dust and noise of a city street in India; my second, out in May, began as an attempt to discover anew my own city, but in the end emerged from the weathered stones of a small Scottish island. I took a trip up to the Small Isles in search of my eponymous ‘cursing stone’ and, while I didn’t find it, the landscape of Canna did give flesh to a hitherto minor character and also sparked an unexpected plot twist.
Place is no substitute for character and landscape cannot replace plot. But nor is it an also-ran, simply a setting for people and action. The best fiction – or at least, the fiction that I want to read – makes place an active participant in the story. It is how memory works. Madeleines might have been enough for Proust, but for me it is the light on the hillside, the glugging of the brook, or a glimpse along an empty city street that takes me to the heart of a story.
This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.