“Fiction depends for its life on place…” Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story
Two new novels arrived in the mail yesterday, Rook, by Jane Rusbridge, published by Bloomsbury, UK, and The Apple House, by Gillian Campbell, published by a small but wonderful BC publisher, Brindle & Glass. Both books are fresh from the press, yet also familiar since I read them in early draft form, and edited The Apple House last year. So I have a sense, to varying degrees, what each book contains, yet at the same time, I know that they have changed – a great deal, in the case of Rook – since I last saw them. Wanting to read the real books, as opposed to the work in progress or the MS, to see how it finally turned out, is a very powerful hook, and even though I’m half way through reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (At last! It’s wonderful!), I was unable to resist a brief exploratory diversion, and equally unable to limit myself to dipping into just one of these new novels.
I might not have noticed it had the books not arrived together and forced me to read them in concert, but what hits me right away is that both writers have set their stories in watery places which are evoked with exquisite, sensuous detail.
The Apple House is set in the fictional village of Saint Ange-du-Lac, a place in the process of being absorbed into the suburbs of the West Island of Montreal. Quaint shops persist, selling yarn, hand-made shoes and rosary beads, even as old farmhouses are emptied and sold, the land ripe for development. Children play on building sites, in culverts and “ditches overflowing with murky water and teeming with electric eels.” The community itself is divided between Anglophone and Francophone, and a fascinating element in the story is the way the protagonist, Imogene, who loses her ability to speak French after a traumatic accident, makes her life in each of these two communities.
Rook’s landscape is the West Sussex coast. The acutely observed flora and fauna are part of the story right from the beginning , as is the sea – its moods and tides and the various ways it meets the land. “The mud at low-tide is alive with soft-lipped sucks and pops… ” Rusbridge writes, “Nora’s wellingtons slop around her calves as she steps from one hump of eelgrass to another, arms spread to counterbalance any slip on the silt. Far off by the sluice-gate, twenty or thirty swans are clustered, startlingly white against the bladderwrack and mud.” The story unfurls in the (real) village of Bosham, famously connected with King Canute, a place which has undergone many upheavals and transformations during its long existence.
Both land/waterscapes have a kind of uterine fertility to them, and pregnancy plays an important role in both stories, which centre on a female protagonist who has returned home in order to wrestle with and integrate past events… Beyond this, of course, these novels are completely different, utterly themselves – and very good indeed. I’m biased, of course. But I much look forward to reading them both.