Landscape as character


Landscape as character

Books editor DEBORAH STEINMAIR read two novels in which nature plays a major role, as it did in the rural, idyllic and pastoral classics.


THE books I had to read for English in college were always as thick as doorstops, with thin pages and a small font. Paragraphs and pages were devoted to descriptions of nature, the canvas against which the characters lived and acted—the field in which the poor Tess of the d'Urbervilles walked to work, the wild moors of the Brontës, the rhododendrons and river of Rebecca.

My feeling is: these days we simply don't have time for such lengthy descriptions of nature. Tell the story; your readers' attention span is short and there are many interruptions: cellphone, computer, TV and microwave are buzzing.

And yet, sometimes a writer brings the landscape to life and turns it into one of the characters. Then your senses are soothed and the turmoil within you is calmed — it's as if you spent time in nature.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Bobby Palmer's new novel, Small Hours, has been highly acclaimed. His first novel, Isaac and the Egg, was a hit.

This is how Small Hours starts:

Forest floor.
Between the trees, under rain
and over puddles, trees, more trees.
There. Over there. Spectacles, dropped in the dirt.
The fox stops, noses them, looks around for their owner.
Humans love to be lost. The fox’s eyes shine like coins found.
The fox runs now. It runs and runs, the water running off its back.
This is it, the fox realises. Cold rain on my fur, warm earth beneath my paws.
I exist, thinks the running fox.
I live, I’ve existed, and I am happy to have done so.

Doesn't that make you feel alive?

The book is about a man who lost his soul in the city, who scrambled between domestic cage and working cage and forgot how to live. In a city park, he rescues a mangy fox and his life changes.

The fox is my favourite character, with his grin and his sincerity. He can speak, or rather, the lost nerd Jack can hear and understand him.

Jack, in his twenties, loses his important job and with it his identity. He goes home to the rundown house on the edge of the woods where he grew up with hippie parents with no ambition who never paid bills. His father, meanwhile, has dementia and his mother has disappeared without a trace. His younger sister is furious with him for going away to town and leaving her with the chaos.

The fox goes home with him. He was born as a city fox and now discovers his natural habitat for the first time. He would like to help the people, who never say what they think and most often do not even know what they are feeling.

The book is full of nature trivia, because Jack's father's mind may be wandering but he's still a walking encyclopaedia about forest stuff: plants, birds, animals. The reader learns that squirrels lose more than half of their nuts because they can't remember where they buried them.

The reader is lost in the forest with Jack, exposed to the elements, accompanied by a wet fox. You are forced to confront yourself and everything you have become in order to adapt and succeed in the world. You suddenly remember the sensations of childhood: mud on your face, wet leaves in your hair, raindrops on your eyelashes, coarse tree trunks under your palm. It's a remarkable book with a lingering echo of The Little Prince.

Small Hours by Bobby Palmer was published by Headline and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.

I read another novel at the same time in which the landscape plays a leading role. Jake Jackson used to be a detective but when he inherited a large property and mansion from his uncle he decided to go off the grid and settle there. The Little Sky estate is remote, with no electricity, phone or internet. He prefers it that way.

The reader may read a few times too many how he jogs until each muscle aches, then jumps into the ice-cold river and swims for miles. How he chops wood and makes bonfires. Grows and eats his own vegetables. Sees the sun rise and stomps through the snow. He is, as is par for the course for crime novel heroes, deadly handsome: well over six feet, hard-muscled and sinewy thanks to his outdoor lifestyle.

He's turned his back on the world but the world isn't letting him go. This is the second book in the series. I wrote about the first one, Death under a Little Sky

Like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote he is one of those people in whose immediate vicinity violent murders take place. Now he has to play detective again — in the meantime, he's fitter, stronger, skinnier and less stressed out after hours and days of working out in the fresh air.

This book is no different. A local policeman asks his advice about a cold case involving missing children. He doesn't want to get involved but before long he's knee-deep in mischief.

There's also a romantic angle: he became involved with Livia, the sexy local vet, in the first book. They are now in a relationship, albeit unconventional: she has to live in the village because she has a school-age child and needs technology and connectivity for her work. She can never call him to let him know she is coming to visit. They have a system: scarves that they hang from a tree halfway between them. It gets frustrating, but what relationship is perfect?

The villains are evil and arrogant and the tension mounts. The lovely landscape that surrounds Jake in his picturesque country hideaway soothes and charms the reader. Jake is a likeable character — he drives himself to the limit, sometimes drinks too much and sweats for hours in the snow the next day to get the poison out of his system. He is a loner, an outsider, an idealist.

Last week I was in the woods, in the forest, in the rain and snow, crossing rivers, staring wide-eyed into raging fires. I feel refreshed, almost muscular and lithe.

Death in a Lonely Place by Stig Abell was published by HarperCollins and costs R454 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Simon & Garfunkel sing El Condor Pasa:

♦ VWB ♦

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