Like a lot of readers, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good book a good book FOR ME. It’s often hard to really put my finger on why a book worked for me and why it did not. Yes, characters and story are of course important, but if pressed, I would have to say that a sense of place is probably one of the biggest pulls for me when it comes to reading. Quite often, even when the book as a whole may have not worked for me, the books with a strong sense of place will be those that I remember the longest.
I was reminded of that recently when I read the short story collection “Things we lost in the fire” by Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell). Despite the fact that the stories on the whole did not work for me all that well (still not that much of a short story lover), I was impressed with the sense of place in all of them. I could smell the smells, feel the heat or the rain, hear the doors close, cars driving… I felt it all. And it’s that impression that is so valuable to me as a reader – especially right now where all of us are mainly not going anywhere. So today, I thought I share some books I love for their sense of place.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is one of those comfort books I have often turned to when stressed or depressed or both. The thought of escaping miserable, late winter rainy London to spend a delightful spring month in Italy in a Villa is just always an attractive proposition. I share below one of my favourite passages from the novel, I don’t know about you, but it stirs such a longing in me to be in Italy. Oh, Wanderlust in times of Covid.
All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine . . . she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees. The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom–lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers….”Elizabeth von Arnim “Enchanted April”
It’s been well over 20 years since I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I don’t remember all the details of the story, but I have never forgotten the smells and the tactile feel of the quilt as well as the overwhelming sense of community. Community is a place and this book demonstrates that so well. The quilt is of course a metaphor for the community and the coming together, but I often wondered if the community was not the real metaphor, the longing in all of us for a space we belong that if hardship comes knocking on our door, we can be stronger together.
I always jokingly refer to “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel (translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) as the book that will make you hungry beyond anything imaginable. Yet, it’s not just the descriptions of the food but the process of making the food that are so evocative in this book. So often books with a food themes are all about the eating, but here it’s a lot of the preparation, the kitchen as a space of love and that just really spoke to me. Home as a sense of place and probably the only book I ever read where “love” in all its forms becomes a place of its own, too. It’s been decades since I first read it and I have not touched it in at least 10 years, but in my mind it’s as alive and fresh as if I read it yesterday.
Nada by Carmen Laforet (translation by Edith Grossman) was written in the 1940ies with Spain fully in grip by the fascists. No explicit mention is made in the book about this fact yet the spaces and places evoke this sense of claustrophobia and lives are lived devoid of nearly all hope. The run down apartment which was formerly glorious becomes alive and is such a vivid space, it almost becomes its own character. I felt as if I could sit down at the table and look at them all. Contrasted are the moments when our main characters can feel a sense of freedom from oppression: wide open spaces, sunshine, wind. Masterful in my opinion.
My obsession with Asian countries is an old one. (It started with Taiwan which I declared my favourite country age 16, in case you wonder). I bought The Glass Palace by Amitav Gosh in the week it came out, because as you may gather around the year 2000, I was obsessed with Burma. My favourite bookseller in Munich, one day said: oh there is a book coming out, historical fiction set in Burma, that should be your cup of tea… Aah, booksellers are special people, when they get you it’s the best thing ever. But back to the sense of place. This book is set during the British invasion of Burma and you feel everything as you read it. The heat, the humidity, the rain, the sounds, the languages, you are right there. It’s such a wonderful book, the first sentence drew me in and although it’s been 20 years since reading it, it has stayed with me in great detail. This is the opening passage:
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay’s fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven – not an authority to be relied upon.
The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma’s brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar’s sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. “English cannon,” he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. “They’re shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction.”
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was my first Ugandan novel written by a Ugandan author and we read it for Read Around the World Bookclub. Apart from having written an engaging novel, the thing that stuck with me was the descriptions of landscape. I have never been to Uganda and yet, I weirdly now feel as if I have seen it all and it’s really thanks to the author’s descriptions (her latest book is just as brilliant at evoking a sense of place). But the true magic of the sense of place in this book is that the characters themselves are so bound to the place they inhabit, that their actions and their thoughts reflect on their place within that space. Some authors make you jealous with their skill.
Another obsession of mine is Scotland and yet His Bloody Project by Graeme Macree Burnet was a book that I had written off for a long time as a “not for me” book. A buddy read made me finally pick it up and what a read it was. If you have ever been to the Highlands, maybe even to remote places like Gairloch or similar, you may have stood still on a walk and looked across the landscape and wondered how people would have lived in this place 100 or more years ago. On hikes, we often come across ruined hamlets and settlements in places where I shudder to think what life might have been like. Despite being an excellent thriller, Burnet has such skill at making the landscape instrumental in depicting the absolute hopelessness of the life of those crofters working land that is not their own, no hope for ever owning anything or improving on their status.
I have fallen in love big time with Indonesian literature this year and this book is where it began. The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak (translation by Tiffany Tsao) is essentially a “road” trip of an epidemiologist tracking down suspected cases of avian flu whilst experiencing Indonesia with some friends by eating a lot of food. Food is the ultimate in sense of place, nothing can transport me better somewhere than descriptions of food and also the places the food is served in. I loved this book, it made me hungry, filled me with a longing to go to Indonesia and made me buy more books written by Indonesian authors.