A Sense of Place, Part Two

15 Jun

You’re reading and you find that you’ve lost your place. I don’t mean the page that you’d reached but your belief in the world that the novel describes. It’s an element that writers ignore to their cost, rendering their fictional worlds artificial, undermining our ‘suspension of disbelief’. I posted previously about this often neglected but crucial aspect of the novel, the creation of a sense of place. I’d like to return to the theme. To my mind, it’s as essential to the success of a novel as fully realised characters, well turned prose, an intricately constructed plot and intelligently explored ideas.

Let me draw a parallel. Holidays are our break from routine. They’re an escape from our everyday reality. Some of us go looking for excitement, visiting new places every time we travel. Others seek the comfort of return to a familiar place. Whichever we prefer, it’s that other place that we seek, rich in all its details of architecture and landmarks, of landscapes, of cafés, bars, shops and institutions. And it’s the same, it seems to me, with reading. Whether we look for a similar book to the last one that we read or a new reading adventure with each book that we choose, a well drawn fictional world is critical to the experience. For myself, I enjoy both. This summer I shall be off to my writing den but also setting sail for a country that I know less well, exploring its countryside and cities.


The familiar…

I’ve been thinking about this for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve just finished reading a novel to which the sense of place is central. At one level, The City and the City by the highly-touted English writer, China Miéville, was a disappointment. The plot was unconvincing. The tough prose was often too terse or, conversely, too convoluted to convey its meaning with much clarity. The characters were cardboard thin. For all that, the story kept me turning the pages. And the evocation of fictional place, surely influenced by Jan Morris’s Hav, made it worth the effort. The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are skilfully revealed through incidental descriptions that create a strange and highly believable backdrop to the action. And secondly, I’ve been labouring away at my work-in-progress which features descriptions of an imaginary country, its five principal cities and a community of exiles. If a writer is to make the reader believe in his (or her) imaginary places then he must first have properly imagined them himself. The illusion of a complete world must be conjured and this requires considerable work behind the scenes on the part of the writer. Maps and drawings may be constructed which the reader will never see. In his mind’s eye, he’ll have walked those streets. If he cuts corners, he’ll fail to convince. It’s surprising how often writers skimp on this vital aspect of fiction. It’s to Miéville’s credit that he hasn’t done so in The City and the City.

...and the strange

…and the strange

Here’s what I’ve been working on today.

By the turn of the century, much of Luduu’s old town had become derelict.  At the same time, the university district was flourishing.  The newer faculties were accommodated in purpose-built structures, their façades dressed in stone in the classical style.  Smart boulevards sprang up between them, lined at street level with cafés and boutiques.  Meanwhile, the narrow lanes of timber-framed buildings in the historic centre continued to rot.  The inter-war administration of the Social Nationalists resolved to act.  It embarked upon a programme of urban regeneration, tearing down the wooden tenements, replacing them with new structures, the lines of which were modern and clean.  A solitary timber-framed building was left to serve as a museum of the old town.  Dwarfed by its gigantist neighbours, the museum housed exhibitions of its primitive and overcrowded buildings, its poor sanitation and rampant disease, its poverty and criminality.  The intention was to show how far the city had come under the enlightened rule of the new government.  At some point in the late 1930s, the museum janitor dropped a cigar butt on the cellar floor, the heel of his boot failing fully to extinguish it.  It fell next to a crate of wooden carvings taken from an ancient shop front.  There it smouldered all day until at last a spark landed among the stored exhibits.  It took the fire no time at all to leap from box to box, climb the rungs of the ladder and rush out into the unlit corridors.  It ran from room to room like an excited child and very soon was rampaging throughout the entire building.  And so was lost the last reminder of that city of oak timber and Flemish brick. 


All text and images © PSR 2014


4 Responses to “A Sense of Place, Part Two”

  1. Mari Biella June 16, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Another thought-provoking post, Paul. A well-developed and well-imagined sense of place is certainly something that I appreciate in fiction; I’d place it above the ever-popular pace in terms of those things I find most satisfying as a reader. I haven’t yet read ‘The City and the City’ but I’ve heard a lot about it, so it’s on my to-read list. I like the extract from your WIP, too!

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves June 16, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for dropping by.

    I’m in agreement. I’d much rather have the author linger over the description of his fictional world than rush to tell the story. ‘The City and the City’ definitely has its virtues. As for my extract, it’s a raw first attempt at one of a hundred vignettes. I’m glad that you liked it!

  3. PK Read June 16, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    Nice post, Paul. I loved the sense of place in Miéville’s Kraken – I’ll have to compare it to this other work now.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves June 16, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    Hi Paula and thanks for commenting. Was ‘Kraken’ good, then?

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