When setting becomes a character



Maybe I’m too fussy (fastidious, some might say), or perhaps I just like making life difficult for myself, but I’m one of those people who are incredibly affected by the way my surroundings look and feel…

For this reason, living in rental accommodation was a constant strain on my senses. A bedroom floor covered in that sort of school-blue carpet tile was enough to set my teeth on edge (especially offset by skirting boards varnished to a rich, baked-bean orange), but if this delight was paired with a set of 80s geometric print curtains in peach and mauve, my days would be haunted by an unshakeable feeling of unease.

In short, the space I’m in, what I see and hear and even smell, is fundamental to how I feel, and if my immediate surroundings are so affecting, then so too are the wider ones. Living and writing in South Africa is as much a part of my identity as anything else.

I know this, because I’ve lived elsewhere, and while I did, I felt the distance like a wound. Being away from South Africa brought on a constant ache, a churning within that would not be calmed.The word ‘homesick’ sounds sweet and nostalgic, and doesn’t seem to have nearly the gravitas needed to carry the weight of that feeling.

Whilst overseas, away from the warmth (both temperature and temperament) of South Africa, after years of being too afraid to try, I began to write.

Now that I come to think about it, perhaps it was this yearning that pushed me to finally commit fingertips to keyboard, because the story I wrote was set in South Africa, and it wasn’t very good. In fact it was, in retrospect, a big, angry longing to be in my home country again. I missed the place, so I wrote myself back there.

I set the story in the Joburg of my remembered childhood, with summer storms that turned swimming pools green overnight, paper thorns that hid in the grass and tortured the soles of my feet, and icy, winter mornings where the air was so dry that it seemed brittle in my throat.

I was back in South Africa when I sat down to write Black Dog Summer, my first ‘real book’. Drawing on that feeling I had had when I was so far away, I wanted to make the setting as vivid and alive in my story as the characters were.

I wanted anyone who read it to be transported to Joburg, in all its dark strangeness, its lushness and dryness, its wildness just beneath the skin of civility. I wanted the place to breathe.

And so, the story, about a dysfunctional family falling apart in the aftermath of a violent event, plays out amidst hailstorms and hadedas and Jacaranda trees dropping their purple flowers all over the streets.

The South African setting in Bone Meal for Roses is a different kind of character altogether, but no less fundamental to the story. In this book, a frightened child comes to live in a small corner of the Breede River Valley, where her grandparents have planted a secluded garden.

Surrounded by roses and lemon trees and lavender, within the embrace of the huge raw Karoo-scrub covered hills, the traumatised little girl begins to put down roots.

The valley, with its luxuriant vineyards and espaliered fruit trees planted in rows, could easily seem to be a picture-book idyll, but beside the cultivated bits, the landscape is harsh and strange, just like the broken parts of herself that the girl hides within, and just like turn her life takes when she starts to grow up.

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