It was a particular landscape, which led me to write my first novel. Over thirteen years ago I moved to a small village near Kells in County Meath. Having lived in cities for the previous ten years I was inspired by my new rural surroundings, and took to taking long walks in the locality. As I absorbed the “fairy” landscape of small drumlins, woods, lakes and bogs, the idea for a book began to form. Characters emerged out of the landscape, and I had the beginnings of my first novel “Beatrice”.
An obsession with landscape in my writing was not new. The first piece I ever wrote was a play called “Northern Landscapes” which used the imagery of barren and desolate arctic landscapes as an emotional metaphor for abused characters.
For me the setting of a book functions on several different levels. In the first place it is literal providing the physical perimeters within which the characters exist. However it can develop into a means of expressing the emotional states of the characters, and ultimately becoming a character in itself. Books like “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte and “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier are powerful examples of a setting – in the former the Yorkshire moors, the latter the house Manderley in Cornwall – becoming as hypnotic a force for the reader as one of the main characters.
In “Beatrice” my description of the dark and brooding bogs of North Meath are a means through which the reader can experience not only the overall haunting atmosphere of the book, but also understand the interior world of the different characters.
For Eithne, the main character, it is a reminder of her grief and a means through which she remembers her missing sister, Beatrice:
I sat in the bog plucking its cotton and letting myself grieve. I was obsessed with the tiny: a small stone, a piece of lichen, a leaf, a small flower. I examined my flowers: dead now, but so beautiful, at one time complete and nourished. That was enough for me, this was all I needed. For the first time I truly believed my sister was dead and would never return.
For her father, Joseph, the bog is somewhere he can retreat where he can face the truth about himself and his past.
He stood among the rushes, swaying. He was here, in his beloved bog. He was trying to reconcile himself. It had taken him all evening and many pints to bring himself to this point. The wind had dropped and it was freezing. The bog-earth beneath him was hard, an icing of frost sparkled above its black innards. It was a full moon and Joe could see clearly about him. The landscape was silent, as if touched by a spell that held time still.
However Beatrice feels stifled by the bog. Her reaction to it accentuates her character as a free spirit:
When she was younger she used to test herself. In the summer evenings when her shadow was long she would chase it across Granny’s field and down Bog Lane. She would wave at the overgrown raspberry patch, and then skid to a halt at the end of the lane. In front was the bog. It was so quiet there. The trees would be creaking, a few rooks cawing, that would be all. She’d lean on the fence, but she wouldn’t climb over. She wasn’t afraid. She just didn’t like the place.
For Sarah, the girls’ mother, the bog landscape of Ireland is an alien place, a reflection of how trapped she feels when she first arrives in Ireland. Yet her attitude towards the bog changes reflecting how she herself transforms through the course of the novel.
She ran and ran until she came to the bog. There she stood in the centre of its bleakness and laughed and laughed. Loud, mad, unabashed laughter, releasing five years of captivity.
So is it valid for a novel to have a beautiful description of a landscape for its own sake?
Personally my approach to landscape writing is similar to my approach to painting. Even though it might appear so on the surface most landscape painting is not purely representational. The artist infuses the painting with his own emotions and concepts through the way in which he paints it. Landscape art can appeal on other more abstract sensory levels through colour, light, and composition.
In the same way the writer infuses his landscapes with emotion through his writing style, creating reference points for the reader through the use of all five senses, symbol, metaphor and simile.
Land, a place to belong, is deeply rooted in the Irish psyche. It is a sensitive area incorporating painful memories such as the “failing of the land” and the trauma of the famine. The economic necessity of having to emigrate in the past, a situation which tragically seems to be re-emerging in modern-day Ireland, links with ideas of home and the need to have a sense of our home landscape wherever we end up.
From our pagan roots there is also an inherent awe and awareness of the spiritual dimension the land can hold. We are blessed with a host of Irish poets who write breathtakingly of the spiritual hypnosis of the Irish landscape. In this way I think that novels too can have the power to touch the reader on the soul level through the language of landscape. It adds an intangible element to a novel, apart from the actual story, which can seduce the writer into the mood and emotion of the book. This is something I try to create with each one of my novels, whether it is the big sky and seascape of the North-West Pacific in “A Small Part Of Me”, or the eerie salt marshes of the Camargue in the south of France in “I Remember,” the wet folds of Cavan bog- land in “The Adulteress”, or the snowy tundra of Arctic Norway in my new book.
Writing about landscape can be a means of showing rather telling your reader how your character is feeling, and helping the reader identify and sympathise with them. How a character relates to their environment gives the reader a much greater sense of being in the story than physical descriptions of the character.
In my novel, “I Remember” I employ symbolism in my description of the mysterious Camargue salt marshes in the South of France. Images of Camargue cowboys, the black virgin, pink flamingos, white horses and wild black bulls converge to create a mysterious and oppressive atmosphere, and aim to give the reader a sense of Barbara’s fear at remembering her past.
I need to walk across the salt marshes – the sansouire, scattered with grasswort, dried up and cracked into mosaics, a desert of hardened mud – and I need to stride through the sea meadows, the reeds swishing across my thighs. I look up at the pink flamingos flying, and they like Mattie’s puppet friends, coral and black wings beating up and down, loping across the wide, bright sky in a long undulating line, like a great kite’s tail. I look in front of me and I see the black bulls. They are the dark herds moving me back to the dawn of time. I see them wandering the flat expanses of land scattered with briny or fresh water, between the river and the sea. One bull stops grazing. He looks at me, and I feel the old thread of fear His eyes bulge beneath pronounced arcs, his head is long and black, and he is crowned by splendid crescent- shaped horns. He is lithe, agile and strong. He is a primitive force, a raging auroch. He bays, and then he comes for me.