Landscape and Theme - by novelist Rosy Thornton
I suppose it came to me while I was walking the dogs. We have two of them, both lively and requiring a lot of exercise, so I spend a good deal of time out in the countryside around my home, in all weathers, alone with my spaniels and my thoughts. It’s actually when I’ve done a lot of my best ‘writing’ over the years, for all that I carry no notebook or pen: I’ve constructed dialogue, solved log jams in plots, and reached understandings of my characters’ motivation.
Home for me is the flatlands of the Cambridgeshire fens, a landscape which is far from commanding immediate attention. Wide, wet and as lacking in features as it is in contours, it provides in many ways the ultimate blank canvas against which to project the constructs of one’s own imagination. Much of the time, I never saw my surroundings at all.
Setting, however, has always held a particular fascination for me. I’d just finished writing a novel (The Tapestry of Love, 2010) in which landscape played a major role: in that case, the dramatic mountain beauty of the French Cevennes. This set me to thinking about why I had chosen to locate the book in a place so spectacularly different from my own. It set me to thinking, but also to looking: really looking at the fens in a way I had hitherto been too preoccupied to do. Because once you open your eyes to it, the fens have a drama all of their own.
First there is the water. Once, not many centuries ago, this land was rescued from it by a process of damming and pumping and draining, and every year – with or without human connivance in the shape of global warming – the water threatens to reclaim its own. It clogs the fat, black, peaty soil; it runs and trickles in ditches and culverts; it lies never far beneath the surface of the fields so that a mere half-day’s rain can swell it into flood.
Then there is the wind: this is a landscape windswept like no other I have known. To the east and north, nothing rises by more than a few dozen feet above sea level between here and the steppes of Siberia, and you can tell. Walking in one direction the going may be easy, the sun warm on your face, but turn back and the breath is knocked out of you in an instant; blinded by tears, you’re forced to lean into the blast like Amundsen nearing the Pole.
So, when I realised that I had to write a novel with the fens as a backdrop, it was neither character nor plot which came to me first but theme. This had to be a book about the elements, so constant a presence in the fen landscape – a book about fire and water, earth and air. Ninepins is, on its surface, a standard work of women’s fiction, a book about families and relationships, about mothers and daughters. But percolating through it, like water beneath the reclaimed soil of the fens, lurks the thematic pull exerted by its setting. As I told my story, I found the same ideas kept intruding: of breath and breathing, fire and flood, choking and drowning.
Walking the dogs has never been quite the same since.
Rosy Thornton writes commercial women’s fiction as well as lecturing in Law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. Her previous novels include Hearts and Minds (2008) and The Tapestry of Love (2010). Her fifth novel, Ninepins, will be published by Sandstone Press on 19th April 2012.