Landscapes can be so much more than backdrops to novels – they can become protagonist or plot driver. As Costa Award Novel Winner Claire Fuller, our special guest for this month’s Are You Sitting Comfortably? shared, the story of Jeanie and Julius in Unsettled Ground emerged from a photograph of an abandoned caravan her son had found in the woods. Who had lived there? What was it like to be on the outskirts, the fringes of society? Landscape shaped their narrative.
For those of you who are new to Claire’s writing, you can’t go wrong with reading her entire back catalogue (in my humble opinion) but if it’s landscapes and brooding settings you’re after, then do read Bitter Orange. Think sultry summer of ’69 and a dilapidated country house where Frances Jellicoe is commissioned to write a report on the garden architecture at Lyntons, a crumbling pile bought by an absent American collector. There she meets Cara and Peter, a couple fuelled by glamour and hedonism, and it isn’t long before Frances becomes entangled in their lives, caught in a web of stories. As the dilapidated Lyntons begins to share its secrets, a hot decadent summer draws them towards a crime which will brand their lives forever.
For something akin to J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley takes the reader back to the autumn of 1933. The Great War continues to cast its shadow over the cornfields of fourteen-year-old Edie Mather’s beloved Suffolk home, Wych Farm. However, the arrival of the charismatic Constance FitzAllen, up from London to write about fading rural traditions, brings a kindness Edie is drawn to. Is Constance all she seems though and should Edie trust her instincts? Melissa Harrison’s beautifully evocative descriptions of country life and the natural world transport the reader in this stunning pastoral story of community and innocence.
The obvious classic master of landscape has to be Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s fictionalised landscape of Wessex is everything in terms of creating a sense of character. I’m far from a Thomas Hardy buff (I find I’m not robust enough for all the tragedy) but my favourite character has to be Bathsheba Everdene so I have to recommend Far From the Madding Crowd. Who could resist the charms of faithful friend and farmer Gabriel Oak? Do be prepared though and have a box of tissues to hand.
For a little non-fiction nature writing rooted in the countryside, you can’t beat Jonathan Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: the private life of an English field. I must have read it a hundred times and I’m always drawn to the gorgeous descriptions of the passing of time and the seasons. Lewis-Stempel brings a year spent in an ancient meadow on his family’s farm to life. From the cowslips in spring to summer’s hay making and autumn’s grazing, this is a unique and intimate portrait of rural life and a wonderful insight into all its flora and fauna.
Craving a change of scene and something a little more urban? Time to delve into a little historical crime fiction. Anna Mazzola’s The Clockwork Girl is set in a living and breathing Paris where ex-prostitute turned spy, Madeleine Chastel, arrives at the home of the city’s celebrated clockmaker and his clever, unworldly daughter, Veronique to discover the truth of the clockmaker’s strangely life-like creations. Locked doors and bejewelled birds, everything is more than it seems in this intoxicating story of obsession, illusion and the price of freedom. From vanishing children to the underbelly of the court of Versailles in a world of automata and secrets, eighteenth century Paris felt so close – I could almost smell it. It’s also been predicted to be one of the biggest books of 2022.
For more fabulous suggestions and author insights please head to Rebecca Fletcher’s website
Thank you to our sponsors Gone To Seed for the most beautiful dried flowers of forever joy x