In Margaret Laurence’s final novel most of her characters are searching; searchers for home, family or creativity, water or scavenging in town dumps. The Diviners; the final novel in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence (though I still have to read number three and the collection of stories) is though a novel of outsiders.

At about 400 pages, I thought twice about reading this, as I am trying not to pick anything too big as I race toward the end of my A Century of Books. I had wanted to read this so long, I decided it didn’t really matter – I should read what I wanted to. So very glad I did, I loved every bit of this novel, not a fast read, but a thoroughly absorbing one, beautifully written it proved a real treat spending time with this book. An epic novel, which is already considered a classic of Canadian literature. Strangely, the novel has also been banned several times by school boards for blasphemy. I find that absurd.

Manawaka is the fictional prairie town that first appeared in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer, her difficult relationships with her Métis lover Jules Tonnerre, and her daughter Pique. As we first meet Morag, she is a forty-seven-year old woman, living near a river. Her eighteen-year-old daughter has gone away for a while and she is worrying about her, watching the river – trying to get her mind back to her work. Here, Morag is alone but has friends close by – neighbours who pop in frequently. Old Royland, the water diviner is one.

“No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie, seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.”

The story moves back and forth between Morag’s present – where she struggles with her work and her relationship with her daughter, and the past as she grows up more and more desperate to escape the town of Manawaka.

Morag Gunn wasn’t born in Manawaka – her parents died when she was just five years old – and she goes to live in Manawaka with an army friend of her father’s and his wife – who agree to take the orphaned child in. Christy Logan and his wife Prin (short for Princess) are an odd choice as guardians for such a young child. Morag has never lived in town before – it all seems very strange – and she has never met Christy and Prin before she is taken there by a neighbour. Christy is the town scavenger – he spends his days at the nuisance grounds (the town tip) he gets rid of the things people don’t want – a keeper of secrets, and a finder of things. His wife Prin is an enormously large woman, who stays mainly in the house.

“‘She’ll be alright Christie,’ the Big Fat Woman says. ‘She gotta get used to us. Leave her be, now’
‘I was only trying, for God’s sake, woman,’ sounding mad.
‘You want to see your room, Morag?’ the woman says.
She nods. They mount the stairs, the woman going very slow because fat. The room is hers, this one? A thin bed, a green dresser, a window with a (oh – ripped, shame on them) lace curtain. A little room. You might be safe in a place like that, if it was really yours. If they meant it.”

Christy and Prin are kind people – and though Morag is often slightly ashamed of them – in the way children are when their adults are so obviously different to other children’s – she becomes used to them. Christy is a good teller of tales – stories that Morag carries with her – she is both fascinated and repelled by his life at the nuisance grounds (I shall forever now, think of a rubbish dump as the nuisance grounds). However, as Morag grows up – she becomes more and more dissatisfied with life in Manawaka, knowing that when the time is right, she will break away.

Morag is made tough by this strange life in the prairie town. It is here in Manawaka though as a teenager that Morag first meets Jules Tonnerre, (nickname Skinner), Jules and his family are outsiders, Métis living on the outskirts of town, they are subject to all the usual prejudices. While Jules is away at the war, Morag a junior reporter on the town newspaper is sent to report on the fire at the Tonnerre home, where Jules’ sister and her children are killed. It is a scene that will haunt them both over the coming years.

the diviners

Morag does leave Manakawa – she goes to college where she meets new friends and lovers, marries the wrong man and longs for a child. One day, she meets up with Jules again, though their relationship is never destined to be conventional, she takes the chance to break away one more time.

Laurence’s characters are wonderfully memorable – her storytelling is rich and poignantly written. My first novel of the month will be one that is hard to beat. I don’t think it matters that I am reading these books slightly out of order, but I am looking forward to reading The Fire Dwellers even more now.

Tales from the tbr


As the year starts drawing towards Christmas, I have to stop buying books – it is obviously not easy for me. However, buying books for other people does help to scratch the itch. The Librarything Virago group have a lovely Christmas gift exchange – which naturally involves books. I am currently enjoying selecting and buying books for the person whose name I drew. It’s one of the gifts I enjoy buying most each year.

So, the latest books to come into my house (that are for me) could be seen as my last hurrah for the year.

Some second-hand book shopping while I was away in Devon at half term yielded these lovely books.

Blind Messenger by Joanna Cannan (1941)– a bit of a rare find I thought, so I sort of took a chance on it. I loved Princes of the Land published by Persephone, and I have High Table by her tbr – Liz read it and liked but didn’t love it I seem to remember. I could really do with the print being larger – but beggars can’t be choosers – I will need to turn on all the lights when I finally read it.

Mrs Reinhardt and other stories by Edna O’Brien (1978)– I have often thought I haven’t read enough Edna O’Brien – and I do love short stories. I actually have another Edna O’Brien book tbr that I shall most likely be reading soon for my ACOB.

Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin (1950) – a green virago I didn’t have – the story of a woman’s life, and motherhood in Dublin in the first part of the twentieth century.

The Ante-room by Kate O’Brien (1934) – a modern virago – set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. I haven’t read Kate O’Brien yet – though I do have another of her novels on my tbr bookcase. I must say this does look very good.

Before going away, I started ruminating on Katherine Mansfield – I saw something on line about her which got me thinking. It ended in predictable fashion – I went looking for books.


The Aloe – by Katherine Mansfield (1930) her only novel – well novella really – was later reworked to become her famous short story Prelude. She wrote The Aloe to capture her recollection of childhood. I have been wanting to get to know Katherine Mansfield better for a long time, I read The Montana Stories earlier this year – ever since when, I have had this yearning for more. Well I haven’t been able to fit more in to my A Century of Books – but I am planning on reading this very soon after I complete the challenge.

You may remember me posting about the lovely Second Shelf books – well despite their website not being completely up and running yet (you can’t shop from it just yet) I managed to order myself two reasonably priced Katherine Mansfield first editions. The arrived wrapped up like little presents (they were presents to myself!) and I was delighted with the look and feel of these books by an author I first read a few years ago but fell properly in love with earlier this year. So, I bought The Collected Stories (1945) and The Doves Nest (1923) I have already read a lot of the stories in these two books, but I will want to read them again one day, whether I should read first editions I never really know, probably collectors would say not to (I do sometimes read my first editions – though I don’t have many – books are for reading – aren’t they?)


I have now ordered a surprise first edition from them – which I think get sent out in a couple of weeks. I have seen so many people tweeting their delight with their surprise first editions – that I caved in – surprises are exciting. I am really going to have to rein in the book spending next year – I have gone a bit mad lately – but the joy of books coming through the post is irresistible. I will no doubt let you know what I get when it arrives (I’m calling it my early Christmas present to myself).


Something else I discovered because of Twitter – was book buddle – I bought one with pretty poppies on, but they come with lots of designs. A good potential Christmas gift too – a padded sleeve to protect your book when you are carrying it around in your bag. I love mine and it has already accompanied me around the city on various buses as well as on my holiday to Devon. A simple but useful idea. How did I manage without one so long?

So, how is your shopping bag for books? Bought anything good recently?


“Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.”

Vox was chosen by my very small book group as our November read, we don’t actually meet until next Wednesday to discuss it. It will give us, I think, plenty to talk about. Touted as a feminist, dystopian novel for the #Metoo generation – it seemed a pretty good fit for a feminist book group.

The cover has excerpts of reviews from Elle and Prima – ok you can call me a literary snob if you like – but that worried me a little. I was also worried that there might be a tiny bit of band-wagon jumping going on with the claim of it being a re-imagining of The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t. Dystopian fiction has become very popular of late – almost everyone is reading, re-reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s Gilead is referenced by someone almost on a daily basis when discussing international outrages or abuses of power. Vox fits perfectly into this atmosphere which also brought us another piece of feminist, speculative fiction; in Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Mentioning this novel even in the same breath as The Handmaid’s Tale is very misleading, there is nothing in this novel that will make it a classic – it has neither the wisdom nor the style of Atwood’s masterpiece, it isn’t even written all that well. I hadn’t wanted this review to become a hatchet job, I didn’t entirely hate it – it has a very interesting premise and the story is compelling enough for the reader to fly through it fairly quickly. I am sure lots of people will enjoy it.

“We’re on a slippery slide to prehistory, girls. Think about it. Think about where you’ll be—where your daughters will be—when the courts turn back the clock. Think about words like ‘spousal permission’ and ‘paternal consent.’ Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.”

In an America of the near future, the bible belt has expanded to engulf practically the whole country. The result is that the teachings of the bible, and old-fashioned family values are back on the agenda in a very big way – with people interpreting the gospels in a way which starts to oppress and silence the population – in particular women. There is a new government, a theocracy that wants to turn the American clock back to what is seen as a better time. Women seem to bear the brunt of the blame, they, apparently the reason America has lost its way. In order to get things back on track, all women and girls have been fitted with a metal bracelet which counts every word they speak. If they go over their daily limit of 100 spoken words it delivers an electric shock, the more words over the limit the worse the shocks become. Women have been banned from reading and writing, no longer allowed to work they are confined mainly to their homes. Sign language is banned and with cameras everywhere – even on the eternal doors of private homes – designed to enforce the law. Those caught breaking these laws simply disappear.

It’s not subtle – a bit sledgehammer to crack a nut, I thought. The central character bemoaning her carefree student days when she didn’t vote, didn’t march with her friends – blaming her former apathy for the current regime. For me this is all very over blown – and not entirely convincing.

Jean, a former scientist has spent years researching aphasia, she has now been forced to give up her career and her research. Married to a doctor who advises the government, she has four children, the youngest a six-year-old girl, who has been fitted with the bracelet too. Her eldest son has been horribly influenced by the new regime, and Jean is struggling with who he is starting to become. Home is becoming more and more tense, and Jean is worried about her frightened, silent daughter. Then sinister government men in sleek black cars turn up at her door with an offer which will mean the temporary removal of her bracelet and the chance to carry on her research. Jean finds she will do almost anything to help her daughter.

“Whoever came up with the idea of labelling classified documents with larger-than-life red stencilling that advertises—or at least hints at—the contents was a schmuck, I think. You might as well put a tag that says OPEN ME! on it. If it were up to me, I’d hide all secrets in back copies of Reader’s Digest.”

From here things descend into the region of predictable thriller – (those of you who know me will know how much I dislike modern thrillers) – guns, threats, a bit of extra-marital sex – some clever science (the author has a doctorate in theoretical linguistics) a friend from the past turning up just when we knew she would, and a neatly tidied up ending that is perhaps just a little bit too convenient.

Vox is certainly readable – and I got through it pretty quickly – I wanted to find out what happened – although on that point there is a massive spoiler in the first line of the book. So, while we sort of know where everything is going, we need to wait and find out how we get there. Dalcher’s prose is straightforward – I didn’t find it particularly well written, in fact there is a slight young adult feel to it. I can imagine readers of YA might quite like this one. I think it should really have been much better than it was.


Read for phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 Symposium is a short, engaging novel with a fairly large cast of characters.

This is a very clever novel, beautifully textured, I loved the way the narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing a little bit more about a group of wealthy, privileged people. It is a novel about what happens when these types of people come together, about the thin veneer of respectability that might exist in such circles. We are though in typical Sparkian territory, and there is also robbery and murder on the agenda and more than a few surprises.

“‘Here in Scotland,’ said Magnus. ‘people are more capable of perpetrating good or evil than anywhere else. I don’t know why it is, but so it is. That gives me an advantage.”

Hurley Reed; an American painter and his partner Chris Donovan a wealthy Australian widow are hosting a dinner party. Hurley and Chris’s dinners are legendary, invitations much sought after, those who are invited will spend time anticipating the menu. Four other couples are to attend the dinner party, and at the beginning of the novel Spark introduces us to them in a way which could be confusing, but isn’t, Spark never allows her reader to be anything else than interested in finding out more about these people.

Lord and Lady Suzy – Lady Helen Suzy is just twenty-two, her husband considerably older, they have only been married about a year. The couple have recently been burgled, while they were asleep upstairs – a fact Lord Suzy is simply outraged about.

Ernst and Ella Untzinger, Ernst is a successful man, involved in the world of international finance. His wife Ella has been looking for a job to keep her busy, the couple have been befriended by Luke a PhD student from the states. Luke is currently moonlighting with a domestic service agency – helping out at posh dinner parties and the like.

Margaret and William Damien are newlyweds. They have recently returned from honeymoon and taken up residence in the London apartment that William’s wealthy Australian mother (a friend of Chris Donovan’s) has bought for them. Margaret is the main protagonist of this novel, a young woman who met and married William within four months.

“The Murchies made their living out of quarrying granite and other stone. They had a well organised small business about which Hilda had found out before she left Australia. Dan Murchie of Murchie & sons, Quarriers and Extractors, Mining Equipment Supplied, was about to retire. But the family business was involved in a sub-contractual way with the Channel Tunnel; and Hilda assumed they needed that sort of money which is necessary to make very much more money. If Margaret had not met William casually in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s, she would have suspected, and without rancour, that the Murchies might be after William’s, that was to say, her, money. It was a situation that Hilda could not have it in her to be too sure of, too cynical about. People did fall in love, quite simply.”

With her long red hair – Margaret has the strange habit of arranging herself too look like a pre-Raphaelite painting. William’s mother; Hilda who has just arrived in London is expected to arrive at some point during the evening – however she is rather unavoidably detained, as she is being murdered as the dinner party progresses.

Annabel Treece and Roland Sykes; a TV producer and genealogist are cousins, and the characters we probably get to know the least well. The cousins are close, and it is only Roland’s homosexuality that prevents them being sexually attracted. Roland’s expertise as a genealogist will play a part in unravelling a mystery about one of their fellow guests.

Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan have professional domestic help at their home, their butler Charterhouse is assisted on the evening of the dinner party by the aforementioned Luke. The reader soon realises that there is something about these servants that is rather suspicious. Just how is that Luke is able to sport such an expensive watch, for instance?

It is Margaret Damien (nee Murchie) who remains the most interesting character. Gradually we get to know a little more of her backstory – originally from Scotland, she moved to London and met her husband in the fruit and vegetable section of Marks and Spencer marrying him with almost unseemly haste. Margaret does have the misfortune to having been linked to a couple of suspicious deaths before. She has a particularly close relationship with her rather mad uncle – who spends most of his time locked away in a hospital in Scotland though he is allowed out for a family Sunday lunch once a week. In Margaret’s past there is even a community of Marxist nuns, one of them who is surprisingly quite sweary.

“So it happened that shortly after Margaret Murchie had joined the community as a novice the BBC duly arrived: Miss Jones, a team of five and their cameras. The first thing they did was to change the lighting arrangements in the recreation room and refectory, clobbering through the hall with their unnecessarily stout boots. Sister Marrow appeared in the hallway. ‘What the fucking hell do you think you’re doing?’ she enquired of the chief cameraman, who was immediately joined protectively by the other four technicians.”

You never know what you’re going to get from Muriel Spark, and her nuns in Symposium are a comic delight. There are plenty more surprises before everything falls into place. This is a darkly, sophisticated novel, and I completely loved it.


Another world

One thing that A Century of Books is doing for me, is making me read books I have had for some time and might otherwise have continued to overlook. Another World was the only book I had to fill my 1998 slot, and I have enjoyed a lot of Barker novels before – particularly her two war trilogies – which I think are outstanding.

In Another World, Pat Barker takes us back to the First World War, only in the fractured memories of Geordie, a proud veteran of the Somme. It is the late 1990s and Geordie at 101 is one of the last remaining WW1 veterans left – Geordie is dying now, those around him know he doesn’t have much time left, and his dying is painful and difficult. Geordie has always been a resilient character, he’s lived a long life, but it is only now, as his days start running down that he becomes haunted by the horrors of the trenches and the loss of his brother. In the past Geordie didn’t talk about the war, he didn’t join the parades for remembrance, and would silently wear his poppy just one day a year without comment. Now the war is back with Geordie – the memories of that long-ago conflict troubling his sleep.

Geordie’s grandson Nick has recently moved into a late Victorian house with his second wife Fran, Fran’s son Gareth and her and Nick’s toddler Jasper. With Nick’s ex-wife having been sectioned recently, his thirteen-year-old daughter Miranda is coming to stay – Fran is heavily pregnant with their second child – and the household is anything but harmonious. Gareth is a surly, difficult eleven-year-old – spending hours playing on computer games and quietly seething in hatred toward everyone. Miranda has learned to hide her feelings, yet she is no happier than Gareth – any plans Nick had to harmonise this step-family – we soon see might not be that easy. From Fran’s point of view – it doesn’t help that Nick is running off to see Geordie most days either.

Trying to engage everybody in a project, Fran suggests a decorating party and they all start stripping the wallpaper from the living room wall. Slowly a disturbing mural is revealed, the portraits of the Fanshawe family who first lived in the house when it was built- a portrait with some disturbing additions.

“At the centre of the group, uncovered last, is a small fair-haired boy, whose outstretched arms, one podgy fist resting on the knee of either parent, forms the base-line of the composition. Patches of wallpaper still cling to the painting like scabs of chicken pox, but even so its power is clear. Victorian paterfamilias, wife and children: two sons, a daughter. Pinned out, exhibited. Even without the exposed penis, the meticulously delineated and hated breasts, you’d have sensed the tension in this family, with the golden-haired toddler at its dark centre.”

So, when Miranda declares ‘it’s us’ we sense immediately the collective shudder – and wonder – whether she could be right. There are ghostly sightings of a young girl in and around the house too, and despite everything else he has going on, Nick becomes fascinated in the dark and murderous history of the Fanshawe family. Fanshawe snr made his money from armaments – while the war destroyed men like Geordie and his brother – it made men like Fanshawe.

Meanwhile Geordie is moved briefly into hospital – where he insists to the doctors that it his old bayonet wound is the trouble. He seems to like the idea that the old wound is what’s killing him, when he knows perfectly well that it is cancer. Geordie’s daughter – Nick’s aunt – is always on hand – but Geordie forgets that Frieda is herself well over 70 – and running back and forth to Geordie’s house, and the hospital is taking its toll.

“They make the journey to the bathroom in slow stages. So much effort to get to the side of the bed, so much to push the red shiny, scaly legs and feet into the slippers which Nick places ready for him. Then a rest before the slow shuffle along the ward, Nick at his rear bunching up the smock behind him like a bridesmaid holding up the bride’s train, concealing Granddad’s lean and pleated arse from the gaze of passing nancies.”

Barker questions the concept of memory – we see the war from an entirely different angle, through the distorting lens of time and memory. The oral histories that Geordie has recorded for a University colleague of Nick’s are brought out, as Nick tries to understand the vulnerable old man he has always had a special connection to.

Pat Barker is not one to shy away from difficult storylines – and here she combines the memories of WW1 – with sibling rivalries, even sibling hatred and the truly horrible things that children can be capable of. The past encroaches on the present for every generation, everywhere there are echoes of the past.

Another World is hugely readable – filled with Barker’s astute observations and brilliant understanding of the psychology of families.

October in review


We turned the clocks back an hour at the weekend. Sunday was spent telling each other that yesterday it had been such and such a time – a yearly tradition in this part of the world that always makes me smile. Suddenly we have only two months of the year left, and again I’m forced to remember how true it is that the years go faster as we get older. I have always had a slight fondness for November – which I know not everyone shares – fireworks, poppies for remembrance, Christmas markets starting up – I quite like it really.

October was an ok reading month – ending with a half term holiday spent by the sea and visiting glorious moorland. Restorative and wonderfully bracing, and the extra reading time thrown in just what I needed.


October began with me reading Early Spring a memoir of childhood and adolescence by Tove Ditlevsen, Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. It was a childhood of great poverty, and loneliness and yet Ditlevsen grew up with a burning determination to write.

Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay was the book which accompanied me on y weekend away to this year’s Bookcrossing convention. It is a book worth reading for Macaulay fans, and I enjoyed it, though I admit it is not as such a good novel as either The World my Wilderness, Told by an Idiot or Crewe Train. It tells the story of Catherine Grey a young writer who accepts an invitation to stay with her aunt, cousin and her aunt’s second husband and step children at her house in the Guatemalan jungle.

A Spark novel that I certainly hadn’t previously heard of, The Only Problem is a wonderfully entertaining novel. An academic writing a book on the Book of Job while his estranged wife runs around with French terrorists and a policewoman masquerades as a housekeeper – could any of this come from anyone other than Muriel Spark?

I had been looking forward to the second book in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy, and The Battle Lost and Won really didn’t disappoint. Here we continue to follow the fortunes of Harriet and Guy Pringle and others in Cairo, as well as young Simon Boulderstone, a young officer fighting the war in the desert.

Seven for a Secret by Mary Webb was a book that I had had for years, never quite managing to get around to it. My A Century of books was the impetus I needed – and it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Gillian Lovekin is eighteen as the novel opens, living with her father, on his farm in the Shropshire hills. Gillian is a very pretty girl, a head full of dreams and longings – including for men to lose their hearts to her. It is rooted in the Shropshire countryside of Webb’s birth, it tells the story of Gillian and Robert Rideout and the stranger who comes along and disturbs their rural community.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is a powerful little novella from Peirene Press. A novel about survival, White Hunger takes us to the heart of the Finnish famine in 1867. Uncompromising description, and some quite lovely writing, stop this from being utterly depressing – but it does make for a tough little read.

Another World by Pat Barker like Seven for a Secret was only pulled from my shelves because of ACOB. It was the only book I had for 1998 – and I already knew I enjoy Barker’s writing. In this novel, the shadow of WW1 falls across three generations of one family. It is the 1990s Geordie a WW1 veteran is dying at 101 years old. His grandson and his second wife have recently moved into an old house with their various squabbling children and a spooky old mural is revealed as they start to decorate.

Symposium by Muriel Spark was thoroughly enjoyable. It starts with guests at a dinner party – introducing us to quite a number of characters all at once. The narrative moves back and forth in time – slowly revealing the past of one of the guests in particular.

My very small book group picked Vox by Christina Dalcher as our November read. I decided to read it quickly while away as I can’t count it for my ACOB and the last two months of the year will be a bit of a race to the finish. Billed as a re-imagining of The Handmaid’s Tale – we were all very excited. I don’t want to pre-empt my review too much but – yes, it is very compelling, very readable but it is no Handmaid’s Tale and should not be seen as such. Part speculative fiction part thriller – it’s an entertaining read, but I can’t say I have been blown away.

So here we are – November 1st. My plan for the next few weeks as I mentioned is to make good progress with the last sixteen books of ACOB. I shall, however be reading Curriculum Vitae for #readingMuriel2018 and Life Before Man for Margaret Atwood reading month.

I have just started reading The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. I believe it is strictly speaking the fourth in her Manawaka series of novels, and I have only read and the first and second, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t matter what order they are read in.

As always, I love to hear about what you have been reading and about your plans for coming month.

Literary Landscapes Cover lo res[470]

A strong sense of place is everything to me as a reader, so often the places live as long – or even longer – in my mind than the characters who inhabit them. So, I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour for this wonderful book. A book which celebrates the landscapes of our favourite stories. Places, which are as important to those stories as the characters that inhabit them.

John Sutherland recalls Gertrude Stein in his introduction to this remarkable volume.

“‘There is no there, there,’ Gertrude Stein, now by choice a Parisian, once wrote haughtily of her home city Oakland. These are words which could not be said of any of the books examined and described in this volume.”

I love that, there is no there, there. I know just what she means, and it makes so much sense – especially I suppose for writers – that special connection with place.


This is the kind of sumptuously large volume, that is perfectly easy to lose oneself in for long periods of time. A book I see finding its way under many Christmas trees this year, a perfect book to spend Boxing day with, a large slice of Christmas cake and a glass of something very nice indeed at your side. There is a wonderful nostalgia somehow, in reading about these places once encountered perhaps decades ago and never quite forgotten.

“In Anne of Green Gables place is a character, but it is also the plot. L.M Montgomery’s beloved novel tells a story – of a young orphaned girl, who learns to find a place she calls home – but the setting matters more, and differently, than it does in most other children’s fiction.”

Literary Landscapes brings together really well-known authors with the landscapes and the novels that they are most closely associated with. The list of writers and their works is a veritable who’s who, classic writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte, nestle up against twentieth century writers like Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Tove Jansson and A A Milne, bringing us right up to date celebrating works by Eleanor Catton, Orhan Pamuk and Elena Ferrante.

These essays, written by a variety of contributors, names such as John Sutherland and Robert Macfarlane, (a list of who wrote which piece is in the back) – examine the nature and importance of that landscape within each particular story. The importance of Bath in Persuasion, for instance.

“class-bound and smitten with hollow gossip and social rivalry, despite its elegance.”

Bath was perfect, we are told, symbolically that is, for Anne Elliot’s departure from her previous life, and for her happier future. We are reminded of Clarissa Dalloway’s London in Virginia Woolf’s classic 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway. I recall as a reader, how the city comes to life in Woolf’s novel, it is a character in its own right, and the author of this piece recognises it as a novel of empathy in which London is placed in the heads and the hearts of its characters. New York, the setting for Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence was important because the conventionalities and traditions of its society, were pivotal in the story of Newland Archer and Countess Olenska. The Côte D’Azur, the backdrop to Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, is a stunning location, the kind of a place we dream of perhaps, inhabited by the idle rich, sun drenched and fashionable. As the author to this piece says, it is an idyllic setting for a story which shows the turbulence that lies beneath its apparent perfection.


I haven’t read all the pieces yet – especially as there are many entries for books I haven’t read but might like to – and some pieces are slightly spoilery if you haven’t already read that novel. However, I spent a long-time mulling over the pieces of my favourite books, revelling in the real-life settings of Mrs Dalloway, Rebecca, The Return of the Native, O! Pioneers, Winnie-the-Pooh and The Great Gatsby. Elena Ferrante’s Naples leaps from the page, partly due to the extraordinary image accompany the piece, as in discussing her Neapolitan quartet’s first novel; My Brilliant Friend, the author tells us…

“Boundaries are essential to the novel, and in transgression of boundaries, both physical and social, becomes a recurring theme. As children, Lenù and Lila venture through the tunnel which leads them out of their neighbourhood, but on the other side they grew fearful and soon turn back.”

Reproduced throughout the book are photographs, drawings, paintings and maps – of these wonderfully evocative literary landscapes, in both town and country. England, America, France, Italy, New Zealand, Russia. India and Australia – and many other places too, this is an irresistible exploration of the places we already think we know, and the fabulous books that took us there. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I shall continue to read and re-read it.

Thank you to Alison Menzies and the people at Modern Books for the book and the chance to take part in the blog tour.