There is little I find more satisfying in a novel than landscape. Fully realised characters, a plot with momentum and surprise, and language so beautiful it inveigles you to neglect everything else in your life are absolutely necessary, but a sense of place is, for me, what cements a novel’s memorability.
Growing up in the Adelaide Hills, a place where people find identity through their relationship to the natural world, landscape anchored me to an understanding of home. I belonged to the frosted paddocks in winter, and the Candlebarks that grew – quickly, secretively – over the skeletons of sheep buried by the dam. When I grew older and travelled, I understood my own difference through my inability to recognise myself in the warm haze of southern France, or the mountains of Iceland. While this ‘otherness’ would initially disarm and unsettle me, it would also draw me closer to an understanding of these foreign places. By the time I was in my twenties, landscape had become a private language through which to understand the world, and I found myself drawn to novels where setting was similarly key in characters’ lives; where it had equal presence. I found myself, as a fledgling writer, turning towards place as inspiration.
Today I am fully aware of how much my writing is influenced by landscape. Burial Rites is at once a dark love letter to Iceland as it is to the life and death of Agnes Magnúsdóttir – a distillation of my deep love and respect for that singular place, facilitated by the retelling of an historic, tragic story. Even last week I was wondering whether I have ended up writing historical fiction not because I wish to focus on the past, but because our relationship and regard for nature is significantly less than it once was, and old stories allow a deeper meditation on the ways in which people are formed by the natural landscapes they live in.
An Icelandic landscape (c) Hannah Kent
Here are ten novels I have loved for their representation of landscape. Of course, the greatest challenge in quoting examples from these books is that they rarely contain lengthy passages detailing the weather or setting. The skill in writing landscape is to capture it in concise, startling references, well placed within the narrative, that accumulate to create a pervading presence. This is what these ten do. It is literary impressionism: a few deft, suggestive strokes here and there to build atmosphere and place, and to subliminally plague the reader with symbolic import. So rather than attempt to illustrate their genius with excerpts, I will leave you to read them in your own time, and appreciate them in your own way.
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
Independent People by Halldor Laxness
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Riders by Tim Winton
Serena by Ron Rash
The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer
The landscape that inspired Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (c) Steve Partridge