Reading rambles: reading in situ

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

‘Superb description of a haunting, blighted landscape.
His best book so far’

I am not a connoisseur of crime novels, though I have read a book by C J Sansom, whose praise it is that adorns my library copy of The Birdwatcher.  I don’t understand the distinction between thriller, psychological thriller, crime novel, detective novel, police procedural.  Perhaps there is no distinction; perhaps they are all terms for a wide umbrella of popular fiction, which, if what I read is correct, is currently booming.  Whatever it’s called, I have been standing out in the rain for quite some years, not particularly drawn to the genre however it might be described, and not really sure what the fuss is about.  But recently, I’ve read a couple of crime novels: the first as an early reviewer, because the book was based in Cornwall and the second because it was based in Dungeness.  And I might just be taking the bait.  But I’ve also been bitten by another bug.

I do love to read a book within a context.  Winter-themed books are surely best appreciated in the winter? Christmas-themed books are de rigueur in the weeks before the festive season.  Recently, I’ve found myself choosing carefully around Remembrance Day, and this year I read Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday on Mother’s Day.  Right now I’m re-reading Rebecca, as the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication is celebrated alongside the Fowey Festival (formerly known as the du Maurier Festival and timed to cover her birthday on May 13th).

But I can’t recall having read a book in the actual place that the story unfolds until I came to Cornwall, where suddenly I wanted to read anything and everything with a Cornish connection.  Not that I’ve got very far, but that’s because there is such a vast number of books set in the region: the enthusiasm for the plan certainly hasn’t waned.  And perhaps the pull to read Cornish fiction has planted a seed which has brought forth little seedlings that are now starting to sprout away from the parent plant.  I find myself exploring the wider notion of reading books in situ.

Frequently, we read books which take us to destinations and situations that are far from our own backyards or our own direct experience, and the act of doing so is enriching and expanding.  Like most readers, I love to do that.  There is more risk, reading in situ: looking up from the book at what is being described.  The author’s descriptions might not marry up to the surroundings; I might find myself hung up on inaccuracies or disagree if the author has made use of poetic licence.  Reading in situ, and believing myself to be quite sensitive to the atmosphere of a place or location, offers the uncomfortable possibility of a conflict which might spoil the pleasure of the both the book and the place.  But none of that occurred to me when I decided, almost on a whim, to take B and I to Dungeness, together with The Birdwatcher.

I can only describe it as a cerebral conjunction.  Several planets aligned in my head and it all seemed a perfectly sensible thing to do.  Quite when Dungeness first appeared on my radar as a place I wanted to visit is lost in the mists of time.  It’s been lurking on the fringes for a very long while.  The book itself came to my notice through Fictionophile’s review back in the summer of 2017.  (Lynne gives a fuller review of the book than I’m offering here.)  I did register that this was a thriller, police procedural (insert description of choice).  But what leapt out at me was it features birdwatching: I love birds; Dungeness has a well-known RSPB reserve; I’d had a vague notion of going there one day and Lynne had loved this book.  The decision was made.  Except that of course it would be wrong to go straight away, the opening lines make that perfectly clear:

61c7NKoA7TL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.”

We didn’t make it for October.  But in February, we got there.

I’ve used a number of quotes from the book in an earlier post, which describe South driving up to the house of the victim alongside Alexandra Cupidi, a newly-arrived detective sergeant, for whom this is a first visit to the promontory.  I can vouch for the fact that Cupidi’s reaction as they arrive is spot-on.  The power station is menacing as you approach it; it feels like you must surely be about to drive straight into it.  The track which veers away to where we were staying isn’t obvious: even when you turn onto it, it isn’t obvious.  The track is shingle-based, amidst a great deal more shingle.  So as I read the opening chapter of the book, on our first evening in this strange place, I could relate to Cupidi’s disorientation.

My own sense of unease quickened further when I read:

“Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse…

                                … the single track road led to Bob Raynor’s house and beyond,  to the Coastguard Cottages.”

 Because this was the view from our bedroom window:

lighthouse 11

That black lighthouse is hard to miss!  The murder victim must have lived literally a stone’s throw from where I sat.  My heart skipped a beat as I registered the fact: no matter that I’m reading fiction.

I think these may be the Coastguard Cottages, where William South lived.

Birdwatcher 1

I never managed to locate the house where Bob Raynor was murdered.

“A small, wooden construction, with two small gables, like a letter M, facing the track.  A couple of chimneys stuck out of a tiled roof.  The wood had been painted recently in red preservative, but it was already starting to flake.  It sat on its own on the shingle, sea kale and thin grass struggling to take hold around it.  Like most of the shacks around here, it would have been built originally almost a century ago as a poor man’s getaway, long before the nuclear power station had arrived.”

Almost certainly, this particular house doesn’t exist, but who knows!  I find myself thinking with the passing of time: using the descriptions in the book, the location of the house must have been on the one short stretch of road that I didn’t walk along.  (The stretch along which the woman was pushing the buggy.)  And I question myself now, in hindsight: did I unconsciously avoid that stretch?

nightingale

A steady drizzle fell as they sat in one of the hides on Burrowes Pit.  She wore one of his raincoats with a pair of borrowed binoculars and a copy of the Collins Bird Guide open on her lap…

“Shelduck.  That’s twelve,” Zoë said.

Our visit to the bird reserve wasn’t as successful as Zoë’s in terms of sightings, though we were luckier with the weather.

birdwatcher 3

The sunshine was glorious while we were there, so our experience didn’t quite match up to South’s chilly vigils.

On a day like this he should normally be on his own somewhere, instead of sitting here in the hide, next to an elderly couple with a Thermos and sandwiches and biscuits, who just stared out of the lookout as they chomped and slurped.  They didn’t seem to be doing any actual bird spotting at all.

South and Zoë got off lightly in my opinion: we shared a hide with a party of local birders gorging on a picnic lunch with tripods, cake crumbs and long lenses spread everywhere.  Apparently we managed to miss 500 golden plovers in the car park.  Unfortunately we did not miss their noisy and inconsequential chatter.  And I thought serious birding was all about silence and stillness.  I’m sure South would agree with me, though he explains a little further:

Birdwatching was like being a beat copper.  You spent your days looking for anomalies.  Things that were just a little different.  An open window in an empty house; a man lingering too long by the edge of a platform.  That’s what got you excited.

So we didn’t see that many birds.  But the power station was a permanent fixture.

birdwatcher 5

On our final evening the wind, which had been gathering power all along, had reached serious strength.  (The next day I could barely walk against it.)  Even in our super-insulated eco-home, it whistled eerily around the corners; there were thumps and bangs as bins – already tied down – tried their hardest to break free of their tethers and rocked viciously to and fro.  The final scenes of The Birdwatcher do not take place in the shadow of the power station.  But that doesn’t prevent them from being taut, dark and ominous.  My heart was in my mouth as I read at breakneck speed: how much of that was caused by the storyline and how much by the location in which I was reading seemed irrelevant.

He sprang away to his right, up alongside the pool.  He heard the gun boom and simultaneously felt the crackle of shot pellets around him, but didn’t stop to look back.  As he reached the end of the pool, the gun fired a second time but this time the miss must have been wider.  How?

… Then, as his ears got used to the ringing that the shot had caused, he realised that someone was screaming in pain, but it was not him.

Did I enjoy the book?  Most definitely.  It reads easily; there are several threads from the past and the present, interwoven alongside the Dungeness murder, some of which are resolved as the book closes while others remain open, and that felt right.  I liked the three main characters very much and felt sympathy for each of them.  Some of the lesser characters, the criminals in particular, seemed a little stereotyped.  The sense of place was perfect; the atmosphere of the book conveyed South’s situation and state of mind as both man and boy.  I can say with conviction that Shaw’s description of the area is exact in physical detail and atmosphere.  And reading the book – in situ – gave an added dimension that I hadn’t anticipated.

Shaw has just released a sequel to The Birdwatcher.  It’s once again set in Dungeness.  Since I’m unlikely to get Bernie to make a return visit just so I can read a book, I may have to read Salt Lane from the relative comforts of Cornwall.  But I’ll be on the lookout for other opportunities to read in situ beyond Cornwall’s borders.

I heartily recommend it!

 

 

 

 

38 thoughts on “Reading rambles: reading in situ”

  1. Oh, I do love your review of the bbok, made all the more compelling by the fact you read it in situ. How I love that idea and think I’ll steal it. Knowing there will be so many novels set here, were I live.

    Thanks for the mini trip to Dungeness, that’s the kind of place I love to visit, having lived in the north of Scotland at a similar locale.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the couple of visits we made to Dungeness and can picture the scenes you describe vividly. My WIP has the main characters wandering and lying low all over England ( only in places I have been! ) including Dungeness; who would think to look there for a missing person? Just as well, a quick getaway on the little train is not very plausible!

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    1. I think Dungeness must be filled with people lying low – fictional or otherwise! It is such a great setting for a book! And now I’m picturing a chase scene on the light railway….. It will be a struggle to maintain the tension I think! 😀

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  3. Wow Sandra, what an experience! I’m pleased that you liked the novel, and I am very jealous that you got to read it immersed in the atmospheric Dungeness. Your photos make your post truly special. Thanks for sharing them – and thanks for adding links to my review.

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  4. I love books with a strong sense of place, whether I know and identify with that place or not. So your book review is compelling, as I do love a good crime novel. I never read seasonally however. I find it too much of a good thing, and if anything, avoid it. So any time now, I may pick up a winter read. No….wait, who knows when winter may come creeping back?

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    1. Isn’t it great that we’re all different! I’m trying to imagine picking up a wintry book right now…. 🤔🤔 Nope, can’t do it! 🤔

      How to convey a strong sense of place that resonates for me is a bit hit and miss. Too much factual description and I’m lost; it’s the sense of atmosphere I need. But I’m currently reading a book which is set in various places that are entirely alien to me yet I feel like I’m right there. (Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss)

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      1. Ah, that Moss novel is glorious! I do hope you enjoy it. I love reading on location and with the seasons, though it can also be strangely revelatory to read a book that doesn’t fit your time or place at all!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, I totally agree with your last statement, Rebecca.

          And I am revelling in ‘Signs’; glorious is the word. I can only read it in small episodes – perhaps a couple of chapters at a time – because it’s so rich in language and atmosphere. Simply beautiful!

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  5. How wonderful! I’m a new reader here and I so enjoyed this. I do read seasonal memoir in the proper season, like my favorite Gladys Taber. I haven’t thought of that in regards to fiction. I’m now going to look for both here in my area. I agree that I tend to read to ESCAPE my present location, but engaging in it from a different perspective might be very rewarding. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Welcome, Amy, (I’ve only recently begun reading your blog too) I’m pleased you enjoyed the post and it’s left you with food for thought. Engaging from a different perspective is frequently rewarding for me – in many aspects of life. Other people’s blogs are often instrumental in that 🙂

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  6. I have done the reverse. I love the series by Canadian writer Louise Penny who writes from Quebec in an imaginary village called Three Pines. We actually went to Quebec and checked out Montreal, the St. Lawrence River and the Eastern Townships where the books are set. There are distinctions among those genres for sure. I don’t like thriller since they often focus on women in peril. Who needs that? I like intellectual detectives, not too much blood, no gore, no sadism. Penny has a core set of characters which is nice as they grow over time. Peter Robinson is another great writer of this kind of mystery. Tana French, from Ireland, manages to find a way to convey suspense and mystery in Dublin and suburban Ireland. All three writers are solid and their detectives engaging.

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    1. Thanks, Elizabeth; I’ve been thinking of trying a Louise Penny book for a while now. I agree – too much blood and gore isn’t my thing either, and I’ve never been drawn to read the big sellers such as ‘Gone Girl’ etc. But the three pines books sound altogether more gentle.

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      1. I’ve read all of Louise Penny, not just because they are set here, where I live, but because her stories, the writing, and the characters are so compelling. Especillay the background threads on Quebecois politics. It’s all so plausible.

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      2. Do start with the first one. While each can be read alone, the characters work their way into you as the series progresses. “Gone Girl” was one of the most stupid books I have ever read. I have no idea why it got such attention.

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  7. I really enjoy reading books set in a place that I know well, and quite often I’ve been on my way to somewhere and have inadvertently taken with me a book set in the place I’m heading for – very strange. Dungeness doesn’t appeal to me, brooding nuclear power stations put me off, even in Dunbar. I am a fan of Louise Penny’s books though and would love to live in Three Pines, despite it being the location of murders from time to time.

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  8. Once in a great while I have the pleasure of reading a book in situ. Mostly this has happened with beach books. However, I reread the diary of Anne Frank while on a cruise to the northern capitals of Europe and I finished it the day before we went to the Annex in Amsterdam where she and her family lived in hiding during the war. I became so distraught at the stairs going into the living quarters I almost couldn’t make the first step. There was a recording of her father speaking in English and I was bereft. I’m sure that rereading it so close to the time of seeing the museum enhanced the feelings which I would have had any way. I am not an overtly emotional person and no one would believe that had they seen me that day in Amsterdam.

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    1. Oh my goodness, Deb, I can understand how emotional that must have been. I read Anne Frank’s diary quite recently and it was around November: Remembrance Day and I found that emotive. It made her words even more powerful. I’ve never been to Amsterdam but I’m sure I’ll go one day. A visit to the house would be a must.

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  9. This is a great post, not least because I agree with you on all counts! I have a copy of The Birdwatcher in my bedside pile of library books, following your previous reference to it, and am very much looking forward to reading it. As for books with a sense of time and place, yes absolutely! When we first moved to Edinburgh it was a joy to read Alexander McCall’s Scotland Street novels. Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels are another obvious choice and, as the years have gone by, I have enjoyed picking up Scotland-based novels to do a bit of local literary sightseeing. In one of my other book piles I have an old copy of Alan Massie’s Ill Met by Gaslight, sub-titled Five Edinburgh Murders – perhaps it is time to crack that one open too (after the Shaw of course!). 🙂

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    1. There are probably more books set in Scotland than in Cornwall, I’m guessing; and such a variety of landscapes and atmospheres. I’ve read some of McCall Smith’s Philosophy Club series and enjoyed the setting of those. Edinburgh sounded very refined! Rebus makes me think of dark, gritty city spaces but that’s my limited exposure on the tv! I’m looking at sampling Anne Cleeve’s Shetland novels – eventually. I’m still trying to decide whether I like the crime genre at all – but I do love a good atmosphere! Anything set in the Islands and Highlands will be likely to have me hooked! 🙂

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      1. yes, I too am circling around Cleeve’s novels, particularly because of the setting. But like you, I am not automatically drawn to crime novels. I used to enjoy them very much but these days I find it hard to warm to them.

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        1. At the moment, having read just a couple, I feel that I want to know whether I like them as a genre or not – which sounds very odd! The writing style is different, at least thus far from my limited exposure. I want to know if that style is standard for the genre (I suspect it is) or a sample of something much wider. We all have our preferences in reading matter of course. But it’s nice to branch out occasionally. That said, I don’t see me looking into the horror genres any time soon! 😉 😱

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    1. I enjoyed it, Kerry. My lack of experience with crime novels in general makes it difficult for me to comment on its merit when compared with others of its kind. There are just too many books; I’m not surprised your library doesn’t have it!

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  10. I love to read books in context and whenever I go on holiday I like to take a book that has some relation to the place, whether in reality or in theme. I really enjoyed The Birdwatcher and I think that was mostly because of the sense of place and atmosphere it conjured up.

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    1. I am already thinking about books which connect with places I plan to visit, Andrea. You’ve just widened my thinking though: the connection need not be through the place …

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  11. Thank you so much for all the kind words you’ve made about the book in this, and previous posts. Such a generous reaction to The Birdwatcher.

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  12. I love crime fiction and police procedurals. I’ve been reading your posts about Dungeness and have already added The Birdwatcher to my library wishlist. I’m going to bump it up the list of what to read sooner than later.

    I haven’t tried reading in situ. I like to read something set in a place before I visit and after I visit, but I’m usually in the thick of exploring it myself while I’m there and don’t want distractions! I do quite fancy heading back to Paris and reading Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris in the square where he wrote it, though.

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