We’ve just returned from a brilliant fortnight in France. We racked up 2,500 miles in a round trip that encompassed Ile de Noirmoutier, which is reached by a two-mile causeway at low tide; Rauzan, where we camped in the shadow of a ruined medieval castle; and Marais Poitevin. This last spot, nicknamed ‘Green Venice’, is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. Centuries ago, it was a vast swamp, but Dutch settlers drained it with a labyrinth of canals and ditches, leaving hundreds of island pastures connected by causeways and bridges. The architecture is just as unique, with balconies and shutters adorning every house, and punts moored to jetties in gardens. Poplars and alders tower into the sky, the canals are thick with lurid green algae. Fat dragonflies zip and pop between shrubs and creepers, and the trees are alive with cicadas. Filtered through high branches and reflected from the water, the light itself is tinted green.
It’s genuinely one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve experienced and, much like Grogport for Riptide, it’s been a real inspiration for my next novel. In the space of a few days, I filled an A4 pad with notes and dialogue, and I feel really excited about starting work. There’s still plenty to do before I can begin, but the foundations now feel firmly set.
The other great thing about the holiday was having time to read. I managed six books, which is no mean feat when juggling a toddler in a campsite. And I had a great run of books – not a single dud:
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was bold and convincing, subtly switching a range of voices to make folk myths contemporary through personal memory. I enjoyed it a lot, but found it ever so slightly cold, and wasn’t as blown away as its reputation suggests.
Cumbrian Folk Tales by Taffy Thomas was a fascinating collection of the county’s legends and myths, made all the more immediate through its connections to a landscape I’m starting to know. It was amusing to recognise the names of not just local places, but also local people – people I’ve met, worked with, drunk with. The tales were strongest when connected to geography, giving meaning and history to a witch’s cauldron or a devil’s bridge.
I read The Blackhouse by Peter May – this was a present from Jane Wood, my publisher at Quercus. She thought I’d like a look because, like Riptide, it’s a crime story set in the Hebrides, though it doesn’t have the supernatural elements of my book. I enjoyed it a lot. The plot was dovetail-tight and engrossing, and the landscape was intoxicating.
Next up was I Love You When I’m Drunk by Empar Moliner, Spanish short stories in translation through the tremendous Comma Press. Despite some uncharacteristic typos from an excellent publisher, it’s a solid collection, each story exploring and exploding conceits of modern life. Some of the stories felt a bit like shooting fish in a barrel – taking aim at soft targets of liberal, middle-class pomp – but the writing was good throughout, and there were many outstanding moments.
Moliner’s collection was good, but the next book was astonishing – a class apart. The Dog Of The Marriage gathers Amy Hempel‘s four short story collections into a single volume, and they are consistently superb. There isn’t a single wrong note across dozens of stories. Hempel’s work is voiced through emotionally damaged or stunted narrators, trapped or somehow left behind in their lives, caught between stasis and decay. The stories are not without hope, though, and Hempel writes with unceasing, unfailing humanity. Her sentences and structure are scintillating. I cannot recommend this highly enough. This is the sort of book I buy two copies of, expecting to have one out on loan.
Finally, I read Snake Ropes by Jess Richards. This was another corker. Alternate narrators explore life on a mysterious island, ‘just off the edge of the map’, eventually combining to bring the distinct halves of the story together around a single, long-forgotten trauma. This novel holds trade and barter at its heart, exploring themes of presence and absence, balance and weight; of exchange, and what it means to give and get. It’s a real triumph, made all the more masterful in how Richards weaves the fantastical through the fabric of base human instinct, conjuring talking keys, sentient trees, and a walking doll with a seashell for a heart:
The last fortnight has reminded me, as stupid as it sounds, of how much I love to read, and made it painfully apparent how little reading time my regular schedule affords me. I’m determined – on top of carving out more writing time – to read more. I miss it.
This holiday has been essential. I’ve worked stupidly hard over the last two years without much of a break, and I’ve badly wanted some time off. Looking ahead, the next two months are going to be frantic – but I feel better for a break. I have my next novel blocked out and the sights and scents of a swamp fresh in my mind. One more draft of Riptide to go, and then I’ll be starting my new story.