Some readers (and also authors) believe that character and plot are king. But it’s the setting that makes all the difference to my experience of reading a novel. I usually forget many of the plot details and find it hard to retain character’s names. But I rarely forget the location in which the novel is set.
For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday I thought I’d share some of my favourite settings in novels.
Though I’m not a big shopper I’m partial to novels set in retail establishments. Maybe because I grew up in that world, working in my parent’s bakery and cake shops from an early age. So any book which features a small corner shop of the kind run by one family, gets my vote. But I’m also happy at the other end of the scale in a department store setting. And then of course, there are the bookshop settings — how could I possibly resist those.
Some examples to tempt you:
The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola: behind the scenes of a fashionable department store in Paris)
High Wages by Dorothy Whipple: an assistant in a draper’s shop dreams that one day she’ll own her own dress shop
This is non fiction but I couldn’t possibly pass on without mentioning one of my all time favourite books about bookshops. In 84, Charing Cross Road Helene Hanff shares story of her 20-year correspondence with an antiquarian bookseller in London
Until I could afford to buy books myself, the local library was my home from home, a place for discovery and experimentation. Sadly their value doesn’t get recognised by current politicians who just see them as drains on their budget. If they disappear entirely from our communities, I’ll have to rely on books to remind me what magical places libraries can be.
I haven’t yet found a book that completely nails the atmosphere I remember from childhood but here are some suggestions:
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: an imaginary library where every book acts as a gateway to the past.
The Librarian by Sally Vickers: a new children’s librarian arrives in a small town, determined to improve the lives of local children by giving them the right books. A promising idea, let down by insipid prose
Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: in the labyrinth of narrow streets in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, lies the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library like no other
3. Artist’s Studios Or Homes
This is an odd choice for me considering I don’t have an artistic fibre in my body. Maybe this kind of setting represents some wishful thinking?
Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale
The Last Painting of Sarah de Voss by Dominic Smith
Museums are in some way a lot like libraries and bookstores. They’re quiet (except if they have loud interactive displays), contemplative spaces filled with objects that can light up your imagination. Authors seem to like using them as settings for murder mysteries but the examples I’ve chosen range wider than that genre.
Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson: Atkinson’s first novel traces the lives of six generations of women. The museum of the title is York Castle Museum, which includes among its exhibits the façades of old houses from the city, similar to those inhabited by some of these characters.
The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose: based on the real life performance of Serbian artist Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, this is a novel about the characters who are transformed by her performance.
Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: a relationship develops between the curator of a Danish museum and a woman who writes to him about ancient exhibits
5. Extremes of Climate
I’m miserable if I get cold so it’s a mystery why I enjoy fiction and non fiction books set in places with hostile environments. The non fiction ones often involve people who attempt feats that take them to the limits of endurance.
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor: a catastrophic event on an Antarctic ice field has life changing consequences for a technical assistant. He survived the storm and a tragedy, but has lost control over his body and his speech. One of the best novels so far of 2021.
Travelling to the opposite pole, The North Water by Ian McGuire is an outstanding novel of intrigue and murder on a 19th-century whaling ship that becomes ice-bound in Arctic waters. McGuire does a fantastic job of capturing the harshness and bleakness of this location.
If you like snowy landscapes but prefer something a little less extreme, try the Chief Inspector series by Louise Penny where the fictional village of Three Pines in Quebec province is often cut off by snow but that’s a great excuse to drop into the bistro for hot chocolate and croissants.
As a bonus here are two non fiction suggestions:
Clouds from Both Sides by Julie Tullis: the autobiography of the first woman to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. It’s full of vivid accounts of the exhilarations of climbing but also the dangers, including frostbite, avalanches, snow blindness.
Mind Over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes: an account of the explorer’s attempt with his friend Dr Mike Stroud to achieve the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica. It almost cost them their lives.
6. Castles and Mansions
The grand houses of the landed gentry and nobility are good for a day out but I don’t think I’d care to live in them — far too drafty for my tastes. But I’m very happy to read books which have these as their setting.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn War: an old favourite of mine featuring Charles Ryder who becomes entranced with the Flyte family when he meets youngest son Sebastian at Oxford university.
Dracula by Bram Stoker: the only part of this novel I really enjoyed was the section in which solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to the Transylvanian castle home of Count Dracula and has an unnerving encounter with some vampires.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: a dark and unsettling tale of three members of a family who live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. They’re the survivors of an arsenic poisoning. The question is who was the poisoner?
7. Familiar Places
There’s a certain nostalgic element to my partiality for novels set in cities and countries I’ve visited on holiday or business. Names of streets or squares re-awaken so many pleasurable memories of walking a city or sitting at a local cafe with my husband or work colleagues.
For a touch of Parisian atmosphere you can’t go wrong with Georges Simenon and his Maigret novels; the Commissario Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri took me back to the hill towns of Sicily and I loved A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles for reminding me of the bitterly cold (and snowy) night in December 1976 when I walked through Red Square.
8. Unfamiliar Places
I count myself very fortunate to have travelled extensively but there are still numerous regions of the world yet to be visited. Novels help fill in some of those gaps and give me opportunities to experience unfamiliar cultures.
Some of the more memorable novels include:
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak: one day I’ll get to Istanbul but until then I can immerse myself in the smells and sounds of the city through Shafak’s novel.
His Only Wife by Peace Ado Medie: I loved Medie’s depiction of the street markets and food of Ghana.
For insights into traditional beliefs and practices in some African nations, it’s hard to beat The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga
9. Past Times
I wouldn’t want to live in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries — I value creature comforts like showers and indoor lavatories too much — but I do love reading books set in those period. I discovered Jean Plaidy’s Tudor and Stuart series when I was about eleven years old and lapped them up; they were so much more interesting than history as taught in my school. I’ve often thought about revisiting these but a recent post by Lizzy at Lizzy’sLiteraryLife has convinced me that would be a mistake.
Instead I’ll just enjoy some of the best contemporary historical fiction writers, chief of whom has to be Hilary Mantel whose Thomas Cromwell trilogy has set a new gold standard.
Also highly recommended:
Pure by Andrew Miller: the stench of a graveyard seeps into the fabric of Paris
Little by Edmund Carey: all does not glitter at the palace of Versailles. Maids sleep in cupboards and rats run amok
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, my final choice of setting won’t come as any surprise. I’m going to wave my patriotic flag and choose my home country of Wales. There’s more to this country than the male voice choirs, coal mines and rugby much loved by lazy directors when they need film footage.
For novels that convey a sense of the natural beauty of this part of the UK plus its culture and history, take a look at:
The Teifi Valley Coroner series by Alis Hawkins. The four novels published to date are all set in the rural communities of nineteenth century West Wales. It’s best to begin with book 1: None So Blind.
Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones: the first book in a modern-day crime fiction series set on the island of Anglesey.
One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard: this classic in Welsh fiction is set in a slate mining community in North Wales
How you feel about these settings — do you love them or do they turn you off a book? Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules and the list of topics visit the Top Ten Tuesday page on her blog.