Novel takes on ‘the spirit of a place’

Deskbound Traveller is dedicated to writing about travel and place in all its forms, but non-fiction tends to dominate, because reviewing it is part of my day job. Fiction tends to be something I read for pleasure, without scribbling notes. I am, though, particularly keen on novels that, in line with the chief criterion for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “evoke the spirit of a place”.

  I’ve already mentioned The Overstory by Richard Powers. Here are a few others I’d strongly recommend from my reading this year (all of them first published in 2018)…

  The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack (Canongate) is a story of crofting and community life in modern-day Shetland. Its characters are as solidly realised as the fields, the burn and the valley, and Tallach is particularly good on the relationships between the rooted and the recently arrived.

  All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury) vividly summons a period as well as a place: the inter-war years in rural Suffolk. But it’s a novel, too, very much for our times, with its warning of the ways in which patriotism can be corrupted into something much nastier.

  Middle England by Jonathan Coe (Penguin) was recently short-listed for the Costa Novel Award. If I were in a book club, I’d have been recommending we read it in the run-up to the election. It’s quite a trick to sum up the state of a country divided by the Brexit referendum and yet still offer a few laughs…


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