Thursday, 25 October 2007

Transports of Delight

One of the bonuses of feeling under the weather is that you can give yourself permission to read, solely for pleasure and indulgence - and that's what I've been doing. Last night I finished Stef Penney's 'The Tenderness of Wolves' (superb title, superb cover),which won the Costa Book of the Year award a few months back. All too often novels which win the big literary prizes can be a disappointment, but not this one. I was absolutely gripped and read it all in one day. It works both as a murder mystery and as a poignant and satirical examination of the lives and interactions of a collection of characters in 19th century Canada, who've gravitated to the far north for many reasons and who have to take stock of their lives and the meaning of their lives. It's beautifully written and observed, elegaic, often dramatic and is one of those books that sucks you into its internally-consistent world and utterly convinces you. My only problem with it was that as the final page approached at a scary rate, I wondered how she was going to tie up so many loose ends - and felt, in the end, that she didn't. I took such an interest in so many of the characters I felt cheated not to know how they would go on, how their stories would resolve. She could easily have made a trilogy out of her material.

You may well have read about this book already, not just because of the quality of its writing but because of the landscape in which it is set: isolated communities, bleak snowfields, silent woods and wilderness, ice, frozen rivers and bogs, under a sky which is a lure and a threat. It is wonderfully evocative and all the more striking because Stef Penney has never gone there: she did all her research in the library. This says a great deal for the power of her imagination.

Looking back at recent books I've read, I'm aware of how much store I set by location and atmosphere. I recently read Kate Atkinson's 'One Good Turn' which takes you on a witty and detailed tour of Edinburgh and its environs (is Edinburgh ahead of Oxford yet as a setting for novels both literary and detective?), and last week I read Nick Drake's 'Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead' which is set in ancient Egypt at Thebes and Akhetaten (modern Amarna) at the time of Akhenaten and, well, Nefertiti. Also a few months ago, Jason Goodwin's 'The Janissary Tree', set in 19th century Istanbul. And you've heard me mention C.J. Sansom's Tudor detective novels set in the time of Henry VIII. What all these writers have in common is the power to evoke through imagery - and that means all the senses - the aura of the place and the time. Goodwin and Sansom are particularly good at smell, actually - and they don't beat about the bush: the past stank to high heaven.

There's a danger, though: the writer may be so in love with this aspect of writing, with conjuring up markets and slaughterhouses, ritual processions, the rank odour of a wolf's breath, the banks of oars on a golden ship, the gleam of light in a shadowed harem, that the story itself gets lost. I found this the case with 'Nefertiti', which at times read as grippingly as any thriller, but then meandered self-indulgently through the reeds of poetic philosophy, as if it couldn't quite decide what kind of book it was trying to be. The Goodwin book was fun but also confusing and frantic and overloaded with factual information because the writer really knows his stuff and wants us to know that he really knows it. Sansom's books are excellent but you couldn't call them pacey. Only in Stef Penney's book did I feel unsatiated - every detail served the meaning of the story. Even though descriptions were detailed and frequent, they never felt redundant.

For the rest of us would-bees, remember this: although Annie Proulx, another mistress of bleak scenery, says 'Place is paramount', that little thing called Plot matters too.

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