South Africa, too, of course, is big in history (most of it ugly), big in controversy and political upheaval, and big in heart – its massive pulse driven by the hope of its human inhabitants, all trying to do the best they can.
With all this banging on about how ‘big’ the place is, it might strike you as odd that the story I’ve recently set here is really rather small. Bone Meal for Roses is an intimate tale, a gradual, sensual exploration of what it means to feel small in a big world, and how impossible it is to remain small when circumstances force you to find your strength.
Despite there being so many rich and diverse South African locations to pick from, so many moods and weathers to contain the story I wanted to tell, picking the spot was a no-brainer…
The Breede Valley, in South Africa’s Western Cape, is the perfect setting for a story about a child who is half-wild with neglect when the book begins, and then grows up with little real understanding of the world beyond the mountains. This story required isolation in terms of its setting. It wasn’t a tale about big important issues, or political complexities (although, of course, no South African story exists without those threads running deep throughout), it was about a small person and her inner world. It also required a bit of enchantment, and the Breede River Valley has that in spades. Named for the river that runs through it, and known for its prolific wine-production, the valley is beautiful, but it’s also a place of fierce opposites. Picture-book pretty vineyards and espaliered fruit orchards rub up against dry Karoo scrub bristling with scorpions and snakes, and where these worlds collide, something very special happens.
And so, I set Bone Meal for Roses in this valley, and as I worked on the book, this little corner of the country became so important to the story that, to me, it went from being merely a place, to a character. In its own right.
Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes South Africa such a complex place to set a novel. The environment is so intense, so all-encompassing, that it cannot but colour the lives and stories that happens within it, regardless of whether you want it to or not. But whilst all this can make things pretty complicated for a writer, the setting is also endlessly rich and moody and interesting. Just like the country itself.