Monday 23 July 2018

Finding a home in the imagined world

A sense of place, whether it is real or not, is vital to any good book but it can be elusive to capture

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, the film version of Colm Toibin's award-winning novel: a writer's sense of place is essential to a book's magic
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, the film version of Colm Toibin's award-winning novel: a writer's sense of place is essential to a book's magic

Alison Walsh

The term 'sense of place' is often used but its exact meaning is hard to define. It's more than the setting or the locale, more than simple geography or backdrop to the characters' actions; it's something less tangible, but without which no good book would be complete.

The great American writer Eudora Welty described it thus: ''Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and... to bring us home.''

Readers will instinctively know that this 'ball of golden thread' shaped Dickens's London, John McGahern's Leitrim, Cormac McCarthy's Wild West, Alice Munro's Huron County; we know that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness could only have taken place along the treacly flow of that jungle river; that Colm Toibin needed the texture of that little seaside town in Brooklyn to evoke the small dreams and stifling mores of Ireland in the 1950s.

What is harder to work out how exactly the writer makes this happen.

Philip Hensher, on winning the Ondaatje Prize 'for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place', tried to pin it down in an essay in The Guardian.

''I often start with an object, in a room; with a detail, with something that could only exist in a particular nation, town, street or even house. A psychology emerges; a narrative starts.'' For Hensher, it's something that pertains only to that place that matters - but, as he adds, this place doesn't necessarily have to be real: ''After all, the things every reader finds transfixing about The Lord of the Rings are Mordor and Gondor, the stairs of Shelob and the halls of Moria - places that never existed.''

For other writers, the place can be real and yet not real at the same time. Veracity doesn't matter as much as the essence of something. Roddy Doyle's Barrytown is understood as a version of northside Dublin's Kilbarrack and yet, as he explained in Irish Publishing News, ''If I'd called it Kilbarrack it would've been restricting. There's a pub there, for example, that's not 100 miles from the pub in The Snapper and The Van... but the point is meant to be that it could be any pub on the outskirts of Dublin. Changing the name gave me freedom.''

In Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, Monaghan, or Clones isn't imagined as it is, but instead it's a sense of what might represent to the outsider Francie Brady, a nightmarish collage of old Country & Western songs, comics and Sunday movies.

Sometimes, the power of the novel rests on the understanding that the reader knows a place almost as well as a writer - that the journey around say, New York, is a shared one, which can be evoked in a single sentence: ''...At night, a view of the Chrysler Building, with its geometric brilliance of lights, was directly visible from my bed',' says Lucy in Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton. The author needs to do no more than describe one iconic building to evoke an entire city, perhaps, because, as Sean O'Reilly put it in an essay in The Stinging Fly: ''The rural story can rely on a sense of place, nostalgic perhaps, and usually created by vaguely animistic descriptive passages about landscape and weather that the city story turns away from, preferring instead to indulge in the naming of iconic sights... like the Spire, Connolly Station, the Grand Canal... a city we all share, a city we have in common, a visible city.''

For many writers, capturing the essence of a place requires distance from it, as writer Rob Doyle said in an interview with Tn2 Magazine: ''But then I moved to London and, feeling very alone and melancholy there, immediately started writing about Dublin... Delving into my memories of the 23 years I'd spent there, and recreating the city in fiction, was like discovering a whole new continent.''

For Molly McCloskey, the Ireland in When Light is like Water, is 'real', but seen through the eyes of an American exile, an outsider who can see that, ''there are few things on earth smaller than this country''.

For Colum McCann, it's the space between 'home' and 'exile' that provides the interest: ''Nearly all of my characters are away from home and trying to find a way back home".

And yet, many writers write only of the place in which they have deep roots: suburban Baltimore for Anne Tyler, or Kent Haruf, who never strayed beyond the tiny town of Holt, Colorado in his novels, even though readers might be surprised to learn that Holt itself doesn't actually exist.

It's a sleight of hand he - and so many other writers - employ to create this ephemera, this golden thread which belongs to the writer and to the reader, hard to grasp and yet essential to a book's magic.

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