I love being taken somewhere else, somewhere unknown, when I read a novel—whether that journey is geographical or, in the case of historical fiction, temporal (often it’s both). I also love reliving, through a novel, the experience of a somewhere-else I do know, comparing notes with the characters—their impressions, their interactions. And there is a special thrill in finding your own place in the world you are reading about.
The following extracts give us the perceptions of characters who are strangers to a new place, and it occurs to me that the well-used expression sense of place is particularly apt in thinking about how these writers succeed in taking us there: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste.
Although I’ve not yet made it to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia—a rare cool-climate pocket of South-East Asia—or Dubrovnik or Moscow, all three are on my list of places to visit, and it’s partly thanks to these beautiful novels. I can’t help feeling that when I do, I will be unconsciously searching the streets, the clouds, for a glimpse of the Eurasian Ghislaine de Sequeira looking for herself in the space between Tudor guesthouses and her uncle’s house, or the wide-eyed traveller Rosa, or Hannah showered in ice crystals.
The house clung to the curve of a hill that overlooked a valley about halfway up the highlands, between the kampongs in the dust of the foothills and the clouds. Above the clouds were the rose gardens and the tennis courts, strawberry farms and mock-Tudor guesthouses where the English expatriates spent their holidays. Ghislaine strained her eyes looking for a gap in the clouds. There, in the very spine of Malaya, on the other side of the cloud, were so many ideas of England. Standing on the verandah of Journey’s End, Ghislaine was struck by the distance between herself and these ideas. She sat and felt another wave of cold sweat wash over her. She smelled the white flowers stiff as wax and fragrant as coconut rice that grew in the bed against the verandah, but did not know their name.
—Simone Lazaroo, The Travel Writer
Along by the sea is a city of stone with columns and statues and marble stairs and salt in the air. It is a walled city and the road winds around the perimeter and sugary parcels fall from the fig trees. They rot sweetly all around the limestone walls and on pink-veined marble. It is silent and a salty breeze blows.
I am facing the great white walls of Dubrovnik, a fortress-city that clings to the floor of the sea. I walk across the drawbridge, under a pale guardian saint that stands over the Gate of Pilê and into a portal of steps. This is an ancient city. I stand in a dip worn into the marble step. The stone is almost conscious, exhales its history into the soles of my feet. My breath is distinct, this is just the beginning, I will stand upon history all over Europe. I can hardly wait, the thrill of it shakes inside me.
—Donna Mazza, The Albanian
Gorky Park in winter, under snow. She tried to take a picture with her camera, but it was so cold the mechanism refused to work—as did the hand she had exposed for some minutes. They sat on a wooden bench in the park. It was so beautiful, so cold, that for some minutes they were wordless.
Their eyes traced the rise and fall of snow mounds in the park. Here a splash of colour thrown off by the carousel, there the stark black spindles of a tree. Two figures flashed past them, arm-in-arm, cut across the ice, then were gone in a spray of ice crystals.
K. Overman-Edmiston, The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity