Whether in lockdown or not, the best books are the ones that transport us somewhere. That might be to another place or another time, or the internal world of a character. Perhaps all of these things. The world of the book should be convincing enough to cast us under its spell, to allow us to believe in it utterly while knowing it to be fiction. Which is quite an ask, at the best of times.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I’ve been very fussy about what I read. It’s hard to dim the lights on this strange, distracting reality. I long to be entertained, interested, taken out of myself, but only the very best will do. Bookish friends report the same problem. The right book is a godsend; the wrong book will be abandoned quickly. One thing we can agree on: we’ve never needed books more.
And so I am suggesting ten novels to transport you, that stand a better than average chance of hitting the spot. Their connecting theme is a strong sense of place. They are all in different ways rooted in their specific geography, a quality which can make the world of a novel that bit more convincing, particularly when we are less inclined to suspend our disbelief. What’s more, as lockdown drags on, it’s the closest any of us is going to get to overseas travel. To this end, I’ve started this list with books that are as far away as possible from my current location in London, and have moved gradually closer to home, finishing with a novel set walking distance from where I live. I make no apologies for spending a long time in Australia. (Apparently you can get a haircut there).
My criteria for selecting these books was that, looking at them on the shelf, I should be able to remember the setting as strongly (if not more so) than the characters or the plot. I should have that memory of having been somewhere, having stayed a while and loved it.
After the Fire is Wyld’s debut, set on the East coast of Australia but with some very well-drawn sections set in Vietnam, a landscape that is hostile and ‘thick with insect noise’. The novel is about the trauma of war and the experiences that bind two men together despite their fractured relationship. Various critics have suggested that Wyld’s writing is on a par with Tim Winton and Peter Carey. I don’t like to draw comparisons but there are lines from After the Fire that I still think of, a decade after I first read it, and it has held its position as one of the best books I’ve ever read. It won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award.
- Monkey Grip, Helen Garner (1977)
Monkey Grip is Garner’s debut, and is set in the period in which it was written, in mid-1970s Melbourne. I found it fascinating for that reason, as an insight into the experience of a young woman in that era, torn between feminist ideology and romantic love. It is moving, laconic, still fresh 45 years later, telling the story of a love affair between a single mother and a heroin addict. The descriptions of days spent at the crowded municipal pool, the hot ground beneath the towel, are the ones that have stayed with me most strongly, and I can’t think of this novel without recalling the colours and the heat of those scenes. Despite a mixed critical reception, Monkey Grip went on to win the National Book Council Award in 1978, coming to be recognised as ‘the voice of a generation,’ at a time when ‘serious’ Australian literature was almost exclusively male.
Tim Winton is Australia’s literary God, and his novel Cloud Street has been described as the Great Australian novel. Personally I think Dirt Music is his best, and that might partly be because what I want from his writing is the shock of an unfamiliar place and the language that describes it. I love that I have to piece meaning together from context in Winton’s books; it’s part of the pleasure, and helps to solidify the world he’s building. Dirt Music is set in the fictional town of White Point in Western Australia, but as the plot unrolls our protagonist hikes north to a remote island where he must struggle to survive in a wilderness that mirrors his mental state. It’s such a great example of Winton’s ability to put a character through hell and pull him out again the other side. It’s also a romantic novel about an intense love affair that is moving and never sentimental. Dirt Music was shortlisted for the Booker in 2002 and it won the Miles Franklin award in the same year.
Set in an unnamed town in the American South, the events of The Member of the Wedding are largely contained within the kitchen of a house in which Frankie talks to the family cook, Berenice, about her plans to leave town. The world is happening outside, somewhere else, to other people: Frankie’s brother is getting married, and Frankie has convinced herself she will go with him on his honeymoon. The world of the novel – Frankie’s world – is an interior one, taking place over one weekend, sketched out on a tiny canvas. We never get to meet Frankie’s brother. World War Two is happening offstage. And somehow the novel is rich and engrossing, the dialogue perfect, the prose languid but never lazy. This has been described as an overlooked classic, less famous than her more famous debut, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but in some ways (in my opinion) better.
This is a ‘novel in stories’: a series of interrelated short stories held together by one character, Olive, and the place where she lives: the coastal town of Crosby in Maine, a U.S. state that borders Canada. I read this in the first week of lockdown and it took me out of my own world at a time when reality was much stranger than fiction. I loved Olive’s complexity, her blindness to her own flaws and her occasional wisdom. Strout writes her with enough compassion that she is not made foolish. I felt from the first page that Olive’s world existed regardless of me, that she would still be living her life in Crosby, Maine, after I’d finished reading about her. Strout won the Pulitzer prize for Olive Kitteridge in 2009. Her follow-up novel Olive, Again, is out now.
The most distinctive thing about Hideous Kinky is its child narrator, who is unnamed throughout the book, whose age we can only guess at (at some point we learn she is not old enough for school) and whose experiences are relayed without the wider explanation that an adult narrator might offer. The result is an impressionistic telling of an unspecified period of time living in Morocco with the narrator’s hippy mother and older sister, Bea. We see, hear and taste Morocco as a child would, and the result is a sensual and charming novel which leaves all of its questions unanswered. Hideous Kinky was made into a film starring Kate Winslet in 1998.
Belfast is never named in this novel, but the setting is apparent in every description, every line of dialogue, everything that happens. Nobody can be trusted, people are not named, humour and fear live side by side. It’s an extremely clever evocation of place, and of the conflict that makes sense only to those living there. It’s also a much funnier book than I expected. Tribal absurdities are laid bare in domestic terms: ‘The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal … Our shops and their shops.’ We don’t see direct paramilitary violence, but the fear of it is tangible. Anna Burns won the Booker Prize for Milkman in 2018.
I’m old enough to have studied On The Black Hill for G.C.S.E. but I didn’t fall in love with it until I re-read it a few years ago without the misery of exams and classrooms. A story of twin brothers living their lives in the border country of Wales, near the Hereford border, it’s a perfect example of how the language of a place can build a fictional world that is immersive and strange and convincing. One of many examples is the description of Meg the Rock: ‘Her skin was plastered with reddish mud. Her breeches were the colour of mud. Her hat was a rotting stump. And the tattered green jerseys, tacked one to the other, were the mosses, and creepers, and ferns.’ Chatwin won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this novel, which was made into a film in 1987.
It’s been 17 years since I read Brick Lane and I’ve retained a lasting impression of Nazneen’s Bangladeshi village, and of her arrival in London’s Brick Lane to be married to a man 20 years her senior. Opening my copy to page 35 I read, ‘A huge truck blocked her line of vision, petrol on her tongue, engines in her ears. The people who passed walked quickly, looked ahead at nothing or looked down at the pavement to negotiate puddles, litter and excrement.’ This is the perspective of a shocked and lonely outsider, beautifully portrayed, and her effort to make a life for herself, to adapt and belong. Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 and was made into a film in 2007.
Set in Camberwell, South London, in 1922, this is a fascinating look at a period of British history in which social and class expectations were changing in the aftermath of World War One. Frances and her mother let out a room in their home to a working class couple, and the fragmentation of class boundaries is played out in their Camberwell villa, with Frances and Lillian developing a friendship which leads to all sorts of chaos and disaster. I loved it for its descriptions of my local area in a period I knew little about. Walks to Ruskin Park via Champion Hill; descriptions of Camberwell as a quiet suburb. These acute physical and social observations were more interesting than the plot, in my opinion, which is not to say the plot isn’t entertaining. The Paying Guests was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.
Susan Allott is a local author who has lived in Peckham on and off for twenty years. Her debut novel, The Silence, was inspired by her failure to emigrate to Australia in the late nineties. Rye Books will be celebrating the launch of The Silence on Zoom on Thursday 27th August, 7:30pm, and Susan will also be signing copies in store on Saturday 29th August, 11:00am.