Map Reading

placeHow much does a story change when the location is changed? Some books rely entirely on the place in which they are set, such as Room by Emma Donoghue, the fact of the mother and son’s imprisonment being the core of the narrative as well as the inventive drive behind the ideas that thread through that narrative. Others would falter without the location, though the action of the book could just as readily happen elsewhere. Wuthering Heights is an example; the moors  are so woven into the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, being almost an extension of their own wild souls, that though we know such destructive, hungry relationships grow in other parts of the world, it is impossible to imagine the transplanted story being told in the same way.

“Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change and you and I never change.”

Other books use places as a metaphor to highlight a current theme. The heath in King Lear, the jungle that slowly engulfs Tony in A Handful of Dust.

And of course there is both travel writing and historical or biographical writing that cannot be taken out of its homeland, even when the book is fiction such as the wonderful A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James or one of my recent top fivers, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. In these instances, the places can be both a matter of unavoidable fact and an amplifier of mood and theme.

Plays regularly relocate in time and place, always making a claim that a new light is thrown onto both the original text and the alternate context in which it is played. The same is true of written stories and literary classics, though it is more common for the update to appear as a film and usually it seems that the transformation of interest is the one of time rather than place.

When writing Caitlin’s odyssey through the realms of death, though I hadn’t yet decided the reality of Caitlin, I had confirmed the necessity of her voice and had a clear sense of the setting. Milton’s Paradise Lost had lodged in my imagination as a place of enormous, glittering blackness, the thick dark black of etching ink; waxy, dense, groundless, with enough intent to form a location made of speed and direction. It was this sense of place that was the key. Not heaven or hell,  but a vast cosmos driven by unknowable extremes of energy that carve out its changing forms in the blackness.

I pull against the blackness that would once more fling me out past the centurion path of comets, further than the space-bound eyes of man can reach. I don’t want to disappoint but there is nothing to tell. There is more of the same. There is still no place in which I may claim to be. I don’t want to disappoint but I have seen nothing that seems to be a heaven. Only earth with her kind sky and her care-giving cradle of gravity and her beautiful sun. How blessed I am when I find her again. How hard I cling.

ch 7, Twice the Speed of Dark

The beech woods, a gentler, earth-bound contrast, perform a similar role for Anna; a location for her thoughts. In the same way that the vast unknowable extremes of space worked to undo Caitlin so that she could reclaim herself again, the beech woods are so familiar to Anna that they allow her thoughts to reach beyond the location into imaginary worlds, populated with invented souls. It is through this act of imagination that Anna is able to unbind the grief that has crippled her. The landscape is where she frames her thoughts and also where she is able finally, to confront her memories.

Let the trees sooth out these wrinkles whilst you walk among them. Let them shield and shelter, let them be beautiful enough to sooth. And she walks in the woods, the echoing emptiness of a cold day is comforting. The glimmers of her ghosts still glide between the trunks, they too seem soothed and a part of this landscape.

ch 18, Twice the speed of Dark

Place remains central to the book I am currently writing too. Not because I chose it but because in hindsight and overview, I notice that it is so. In this instance it is the spaces that operate between, the edges of things. The eeriness of incomplete human presence. Though often chosen seemingly at random as one writes, it is curious how often a look back reveals that the place of the writing has offered something that maps the story to its soul, connects the characters to the subtler themes that live in the undercurrents of the words.


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