So, as we know, I’ve been reading a tonne of books lately. (Not literally, I haven’t tried to weigh them all.) I recently picked up Jill Paterson’s The Celtic Dagger, right before Gabrielle Williams’ Beatle Meets Destiny. The former I won through a Goodreads competition; the second I picked up from the library after Lauredhel mentioned having read it. The Celtic Dagger is a murder mystery full of family secrets and professional rivalries; Beatle Meets Destiny is a YA novel about two teenagers, John Lennon and Destiny McCartney, and their slightly surreal courtship. The thing they both have in common is that they are set in areas I know well and love dearly.
The Celtic Dagger moves around southern Australia, largely being set in the Blue Mountains town of Blackheath and Sydney’s lower north, inner west, and city. These are all places I’ve spent a lot of time, and, as such, I could all the more vividly picture James Wearing’s struggle to learn who killed his brother, Alex. I joined him on his trudge from his office to Redfern Station, on his taxi ride from the airport (not that I will ever figure out the quick route from the airport), for his coffee on Melbourne’s Chapel St, through his stormy night in the beautiful surrounds of Blackheath. It’s quite special to be able to involve yourself in a book in such a way, not just because the author has brought a scene to life, but because you have walked those streets and know just how the light falls.
The same is true for Williams’ novel, which is set in south Melbourne. The tram the characters are always hopping on, the number 16, is my very favourite tram in all the city. I know and love the weird character of the kinds of places Beatle, Destiny, and their mates visit on Carlisle St. (If you ever find yourself in Melbourne, you simply can’t miss St Kilda.) I’ve spent some of my happiest times where the characters spend theirs, not to mention tasted similarly strange and excellent ice creams. I wonder a bit why on earth the carless Beatle and Destiny go on a date at Chadstone, because I know that the public transport out there is bad by Melbourne standards. (The story goes that this major shopping centre was built there in particular in order to attract only the kind of shopper who can afford a car….) I love that town, and therefore the book is that much more special to me.
There’s a particular charm to reading a book set somewhere you know or somewhere you love. The same goes for any other cultural product, really: for Sydneysiders, watching the Matrix films is as much about location spotting as it is about the groundbreaking special effects. (I bet people from New York and Los Angeles and London and places like that never stop doing this!) I think that Chicagoans must feel similarly about Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is so much about that city, in a way I can’t access. But it’s special in my eyes because I know someone else must get that particular pleasure out of it, if you see what I mean. If books are often about escaping into other worlds, there’s a happy defamiliarisation of your world when you encounter it in books. A recognition and a foreignness.
It’s a cool thing. I must seek out more books set where I am, and where I have been. My reading – and the publishing industry – is skewed towards the US and the UK, which means that I’ve gained a halfway familiarity with those cultures and geographies. But it would be very nice to seek out those of where I am.