Last month’s blog, which was written at the start of the summer heatwave and was about books set in hot places, seemed to strike a chord with a few people. As the heatwave intensifies, maybe it’s time to think about cold places as setting. The novel I’m drafting at the moment is set in the Highlands of Scotland, and cold places certainly have an impact on my characters – but to say anymore more would be a huge spoiler.
I’ve always liked novels set in cold places. Winter seems to add tension, drama, and often a sense of claustrophobia. My favourite Stephen King novel Misery would not work without the main character being trapped by snow – and of course a mad woman. Brilliant combination. The Shining is another Stephen King which relies on being trapped in by snow. And would Donna Tartt’s The Secret History have worked quite as well without the snow storm which covered Bunny’s body? (No spoiler there, by the way, it’s right there on page one).
You can’t talk about novels set in cold places without mentioning Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Truly the most depressing book I’ve ever read, but also utterly utterly brilliant. Set in a post apocalyptic nuclear winter – shiver…
I recently discovered a brilliant writer – Michelle Paver, who has written two ghosts stories both set in cold places. The first one Dark Matter, features a man marooned all alone in a cabin within the Arctic Circle for the whole of the winter – and something is outside the cabin wanting to get in…. Makes me shiver just to remember it. The second one, Thin Air is set on a Himalayan mountain, again where people are trapped in extreme cold weather and menaced by the supernatural. Aren’t they fantastic settings for a ghost story? With the added danger of extreme cold.
Having said all that, I actually love cold places. I had always fantasised about visiting Greenland and we finally made it there a couple of years ago. (Pictures above are from our stay – in June – in Ilulissat, Greenland.) The icebergs and whales did not disappoint. So when I heard Kathleen Winter talking at the Ullapool Book Festival this year about her account of travelling in the Arctic Circle, I couldn’t wait to read it. Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage is lyrical and shows how the far north can utterly capitivate you.
At the same Ullapool Book Festival Sally Magnusson was promoting her book The Sealwoman’s gift. I loved this for the contrast between cold and hot. Based on a true historical event, in 1627 a group of Icelanders are captured as slaves and carried off to North Africa, where they remain for several years as Denmark tries to decide whether to pay their ransom. I visited Iceland on my way to Greenland and adored it, but what must it have been like to have only ever known Icelandic weather and end up in North Africa? Sally Magnusson does a brilliant job of bringing their stories alive. As does Hannah Kent in Burial Rites ,another novel based on a true story, this time 1829 Iceland, about a woman who is accused of murder. The story is gripping, but made more so by the intimate portrayal of life on the margins.
(Left hand picture is of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) from where the Icelanders were captured. The story has another delicious level of irony as Vestmannaeyjar was named after Irishmen who lived and died there, slaves captured by the Icelanders in previous times.)
I must also mention my friend LJ MacWhirter’s debut novel for young adults Black Snow Falling. The atmosphere she creates mixing the claustrophobia of a real Tudor winter with the magical realism of her ‘black snow’ is brilliant. And what an amazing cover too.
But if we are to talk about cold places, then science fiction must come into it, because what could be colder than outer space? I remember being totally gripped by Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, about the humans marooned on a planet with no sun, huddling for warmth under geothermal trees. Really worth reading.