With this choice, I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend my weekends tramping through the wilderness with my backpack, self sufficient and unafraid. In actual fact, whilst I do like to be out in the countryside, I’m still a nature tourist rather than a traveller. I don’t like to be too far from the nearest Costa or the relative safety of shelter. With this disclaimer though, Scotland is my favourite place in the whole word and I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring it over the years.
Neil Ansell writes about the Rough Bounds of Scotland, details of separate visits he makes throughout the course of a year. He makes his trips alone, reflecting often on his preference for solo expeditions – something with which I have great sympathy, as I often prefer to walk alone. As he traverses the countryside, the author intersperses his observations about landscape, weather and wildlife with facts. Having been interested in the natural world since he was a youngster, his knowledge is wide and really added to my enjoyment of the book.
There is an under-current in the book though, as Neil is losing his hearing. Initially this has affected only sounds within certain ranges, but is slowly becoming more profound. The effect of this is that he is no longer able to hear some birdsong and animal calls, losses which might threaten to break part of his connection with the natural world. For someone who derives enormous solace from the adventures of camping alone (midges nothwithstanding!), walking and exploring, this is a huge threat to the author’s wellbeing. His eventual acceptance is poignant and profoundly moving.
Reading this book made me realise something about myself; although I look at wildlife and nature, I don’t see very much. The author doesn’t just spot birds, he understands their movements, flight patterns, calls. He can follow tracks and understands what might have caused a change in vegetation, weather or animal behaviour, The author describes sitting watching the waves, which are roughly the same size, until the rhythm is broken by one very large wave. Out at sea, there is a pod of pilot whales. Watching them, Neil figures out that the creatures have systematically surrounded a shoal of herring to hunt. I would probably have seen the whales and been very excited, but not figured out what they were doing. I’ve spotted sea eagles, eagles, deer (never an otter, sadly), seals and have good enough binoculars to be able to bring them closer, but am not observant in my looking. This book gave me a much greater appreciation of what I might be able to actually see, with more time and patience.
Every now and then I read a book which, for weeks afterwards, whenever anyone asks me ‘what shall I read next?’, I press a copy into their hands. So far in 2016, Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’ has been that book.
Harry Cane is a young man of seemingly limited ambition who is able to live comfortably with his young wife and child without the need to bother himself with a career. His marriage is not without love, but is without passion. Following a chance encounter with an attractive voice coach, with whom he embarks upon an illicit sexual affair, Harry discovers the ardour missing from his matrimony. When the relationship is discovered and Harry faces public disgrace, he decides upon emigration from England to Canada. There is the promise of anonymity, but also land and the chance to forge a new beginning.
The opening chapter of the book is difficult to figure out, as it seems as if Harry is now in some kind of hospital or institution, but his supposed crime is not entirely clear. By the end of the novel, the author has cleverly brought the narrative full circle and the explanations are unexpected.
Gale explores many themes in ‘A Place Called Winter‘, including sexuality, gender, isolation, forgiveness and acceptance, all handled with a quietly confident style, whose simple prose belies the strength of the plot and its main players. The historical perspective and sense of place are highly evocative, capturing both the social and physical landscapes of England and the Canadian prairies in the early 1800s.
The success of the novel lies in the characterisation of Harry Cane and his capacity for love in its many guises; parental, platonic, sexual and romantic. He is also an essentially good man, in the truest sense of the word. Despite Harry’s experiences he retains an almost childlike nature, trusting and guileless. I was with him all the way.
Charlotte is happiest outside, wandering the fields, taking in nature. She loves the leaves and the seasons, the cool and unpredictable English weather. But the house she shares with her husband and their baby daughters is cramped and mouldy, leaving Henry yearning for warmth and sunshine. When he persists with his suggestion that the family emigrate to Perth, Australia, Charlotte is exhausted by motherhood and too lacking in energy to resist. So they make the journey with their young family and Henry takes up his post at the University. His wife however, has no reason to leave the house and she becomes increasingly isolated and frustrated by motherhood. Until she meets Nicholas. When Henry has to travel to India to be with his ailing mother, Charlotte makes a decision which will change her life and her marriage, possibly irrevocably.
The descriptive powers of Stephanie Bishop make this book read like poetry; I could feel the oppressive Australian heat, English rain and Indian humidity. Whilst the plot is simple enough, the evocative writing makes this an engrossing read. It seemed to me a very honest picture of the realities of marriage and motherhood, as Charlotte loves her children but struggles with the loss of her own identity and craves time to be alone, to express her creativity through her painting. In her resentment, she ‘takes it out’ on her daughters; whilst no-one would condone such behaviour, Bishop’s portrayal makes Charlotte a highly credible character.
Born in India but sent to England, Henry struggles with his own sense of not belonging there; ‘England was always secondary.’ Once away from the fens, Charlotte yearns to return. The author uses ‘The Other Side of the World‘ to make her reader really think about what home is, and how the pull of a place can be overwhelmingly strong. What happens when our homing instincts conflict with where we believe our duties lie?
This is a thought-provoking and moving read, one of those rare books whose imprint lurks in the memory long after the final page.
Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of this novel.