A Spot of Armchair Travel

Posted on 11th September, 2020

I look for various things in a book – well-rounded characters and a gripping plot are the two obvious ones. I’m sure many other readers require the same of their reading. But there is another feature that I don’t regard as an essential, although when I come across it in a story, it is, for me, quite simply the cherry on the cake – and that is a strong sense of place. There are some writers who possess the ability to create the setting of their story in a vivid way that makes the reader experience the place where the story is happening to a degree that transcends the story itself.


One book that achieves this beautifully is Jan Baynham’s debut novel, the Not The Booker Prize long-listed Her Mother’s Secret: the Summer of ’69. This is a dual-time story, which shows what happened to a talented young artist one summer back in the ’60s and then, years later, how her daughter follows in her footsteps to try to uncover the truth of what took place that during fateful summer. It is an engrossing, well-paced story, with characters to care about – a love story with dark and unexpected undercurrents.


But for me, there was an additional character in the book – and that was the Greek setting itself. This wonderful book gave me a sense of the Greek landscape that I last experienced years ago when I read My Family and Other Animals for the first time. Through her mesmerising descriptions, Jan Baynham expertly transports her readers to the idyllic, sun-drenched island with its turquoise waters, spectacular views, sparkling sunshine and the warm breeze shifting through the leaves of the olive trees. In these uncertain days, if a holiday abroad doesn’t feel like the right thing for you, then, by bringing the landscape alive in this book, Jan Baynham has provided the next best thing.

Another book that for me falls into this special category is The Italian House by Teresa Crane, which was published in 1995. It is the story of a downtrodden young wife, who, shortly after the First World War, unexpectedly inherits her grandmother's villa in Italy. A quirk of Italian law requires her to take possession in person, so she travels alone to Tuscany, where she falls in love with the place and with another man. But the Villa Castellini is a place of secrets, and strange events in the present form a link to disturbing family secrets from the past.


With its descriptions of the Tuscan hills beneath the clearest of skies, the river twisting and foaming through the village in the valley, and the track winding up the steep mountain to the villa, the sense of place in this novel is so strong and assured that the book ought to have a warning blazoned across the cover: this book will make you want to sell everything you possess and move to Tuscany. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.


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