Reflections on including the Northern Irish landscape I grew up with as a key character in my novel, Peninsula.
Growing up in County Down from the 1960’s through to the 1980’s, I lived close to beautiful places and was fortunate to have family who delighted in nature and were convinced of the importance of sparking the same delight in the next generation. That my grandparents farmed the land strengthened this connection. There was no denying the reverberations of The Troubles. Still, on the shore, in the fields, hills and woods, there were sure sources of inspiration and hope to be found.
My second novel Peninsula (Dalzell Press, 2020) draws strongly on this relationship with my native County Down. While I chose to fictionalise some elements of the setting, it is very much inspired by the area of The Ards and Strangford Lough. This landscape connected naturally with our words and family story-telling. It felt right to learn and remember all the names of wild flowers, trees, creatures, as if by naming and remembering we acknowledged them individually. Not really ‘as if’, more ‘because’. For as long as I can remember, I’ve regarded Nature as a breathing presence, a gathering of presences, living around and alongside us, a belief which has fuelled and is no doubt apparent in my writing.
The specific natural environment plays an integral part in the lives of the characters of Peninsula. As its attributes are described and gradually revealed in more detail – physical features and qualities, history, associated memories, strengths and vulnerabilities – the landscape assumes the weight and dimensions of a substantial character in its own right. Here there is an otherness which will act and be acted upon; a reality with the power to steady and uplift; an authentic force to be reckoned with.
From the outset, main characters Gillian and David manifest their own intentions to connect with the land as a way of connecting with themselves, of discovering new directions for the future. Seeking solitude for their own reasons, each turns, paradoxically, to the less predictable character of the landscape for a kind of anchorage to restore a sense of inner calm and perspective, to enable them to contact their true feelings, their internal locus of control.
The novel opening finds Gillian arriving back on the peninsula and also at a new point of departure in her life. A stained glass artist who is particularly inspired by landscape, she will aim to simply focus on drawing and gathering ideas for her work, renewing her bond with her native land. ‘Me and this land. Enduring connection; bridge never broken.’ The voice of her deceased father echoes through her head, reminding her that whatever happens, her birthplace will always be there for her. ‘You’ll always belong to it and it to you. It’ll remind you of who you are and a few of the things that shaped you early on.’ Previously she has returned to spend time with family, most recently in the demoralising, tense company of her sisters. This time she plans to stay at a holiday cottage alone, undeclared. Gillian has an established, positive, though realistic view of Nature. She perceives its beauty and potential to inform her as an artist; she feels it as kin, with its own kinds of flesh and blood, observable cycles of death and renewal; she sees ‘jagged rock’, beached jellyfish ‘ragged undersides up’ and knows the sea can be ‘numbingly’ cold. When her tendency to overthink and obsess over painful details threatens to overwhelm her, she needs to take herself outside, to be ‘in front of the things that have always kept me sane.’
David’s own complex historical relationship with the peninsula will gradually be uncovered. Still, it is obvious that he too feels the pull of this landscape and welcomes its grounding influence. While ostensibly on holiday and there for the walking and fishing, David has returned with his own inner turmoil, a dark secret from the past that he must process and resolve somehow, once and for all. Throughout the story he goes between attempting to retreat into moment by moment living in the present and feeling the land’s ‘raw truthfulness’, its capacity to ‘work’ on his core by loosening his emotions, charging up his memories, for the better and the worse.
As Gillian and David interact individually with the peninsula and the lough, each adds to and further develops their connection with the countryside. At the same time their paths converge and become entwined, bringing the potential to apprehend something of each other’s journey and perspectives.
‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less but Nature more’
(From George Gordon Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)
As a writer, finding the potency in a particular landscape can be as powerful an inspiration as any human muse.
(c) Tanya Ravenswater
Peninsula, the second novel from Tanya Ravenswater (Jacques, 2017) is a beautifully told love story with a dark secret at its heart.
‘To lay the past to rest, once and for all. To be able to forget the bad, remember the good. To reconnect with the indisputable beauty of the landscape.’
Gillian and David – strangers with their own reasons for returning alone to Northern Ireland. When they find themselves in neighbouring holiday cottages, their intention is to avoid getting involved.
Life is everything but predictable.
Forced to resolve issues from the past, each must stay in the flow of a present which brings its own challenges. In reconnecting with the ‘raw truthfulness of the countryside’, they feel driven to confront inescapable truths about themselves and others – and drawn to consider fresh, uncharted possibilities for the future.
A compelling novel about people being alone and together; the upsides and downsides of family and community; about those with the power to wound or heal; dialogues and silence; about bridges broken and bridges to be built.
Peninsula is a lyrical evocation of a landscape; another iteration of Ireland’s ‘terrible beauty’. And a story which acknowledges the darkness in human experience, while celebrating the pleasures and the lighter side of being alive.
Order your copy online here.