Literature and place

A book that I’ve recently added to my must-read list is Joan Thomas’ new novel, The Opening Sky. Lately several people have told me I should read it, because it’s a well-written story but also because parts of it take place in the neighborhood where I live.

There’s a particular pleasure in reading a book that’s set in a place you know. I thought about this recently after re-reading Barbara Nickel’s poetry collection, Domain, in which several poems talk about the Saskatchewan town where she grew up and about her family’s house. I happen to be from the same town, and reading these poems brought me back there, to the way the place looked and felt in the ’70s when I was in elementary and junior high school.

That sense of familiarity is what first attracted me to the urban fantasy novels of Charles de Lint. Several of his novels from the ’80s and early ’90s are set in Ottawa, where I lived for a time. I also lived in Regina briefly, and that contributes to the pleasure I get from Gail Bowen’s mystery novels. I have grown to like both these writers for other reasons, too, but there’s still something about being able to instantly know the landscape, what the streets look like, what the weather’s like.

But there’s a bit of strangeness in the familiarity. Reading another writer’s take on a familiar place is different from simply remembering it. The experience is a bit like meeting someone for the first time and finding out they used to live five blocks from where you grew up. Someone else’s portrayal of a city or landscape can show you things you didn’t know; you get to see the place in a different light. You see possibilities for what could happen in that place.

 

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