The setting of a novel can be almost a character in itself, such as Cephalonia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Intimate knowledge becomes essential, which is why I worked so hard at getting the feel of Guernsey right in Glint of Light on Broken Glass.
You have to live in a place to really ‘get’ it, yet an outsider will spot those things that another outsider (most readers) will tag on to identify this place as different from everywhere else. I’m a Yorkshireman by birth, and having spent most of my adult life here, fall into both camps (although I’ll never strictly be a ‘Guernseyman’).
It is interesting that the two ‘classic’ books set in the islands were by Victor Hugo (a French exile) and G B Edwards (who spent most of his adult life in England). The most commercially successful has been by an American (Mary Ann Schaffer).
You can get away with glibly setting a book ‘in London’ if you just mean tourist London or a non-specific suburb where detail on the ground is not important, but my Guernsey is the real Guernsey not some place picked off an atlas. Of course not even local readers of Glint of Light on Broken Glass remember life in the islands before the first World War and I have not ‘been there’ either. All its readers are therefore to some extent visitors.
The challenge for the historical novelist is to make this lost world real. Without overdosing on adjective and purple prose, the writer must make the setting authentic. If the readers have never been to Samarkand, Deadwood or second century Rome, they must end the book feeling as though they have.
Most of the locations I used for Glint still exist, but many are changed beyond recognition. The sun still sets over Cobo and can be enjoyed from the terrace at the Rockmount, but no longer from the long-gone Cobo Arms. A visitor to the Castel Church can see the statue-menhir, the tomb of Admiral Saumarez and the fresco high on the walls. Note that in the book I called the menhir of the mother goddess “the Gràn’mère” for convenience, although it is not actually called that. The truth of historical novels is that the writer must make most of it up.
St Matthew’s Cobo stands proud on the skyline above the west coast, but German engineers and their slave workers have obliterated the dunes of the sand-eeling party. All over the island German structures remain as stark reminders of how war can affect such a tranquil place. The Castel has become quite built-up compared to 1914; most of its quarries have been filled in and many of the vineries cleared away. A consequence of losing all this industry is that the Parish may now actually be a prettier place than it was when the Bazin boys played Boer War on the bare slopes of Le Guet. Its Napoleonic watch-house is now shrouded by Scots Pines. The heritage of the parish remains evident in its granite houses, pretty rendered cottages and its abreuveurs (water troughs). Some lanes are still overhung by trees on both sides, joining to form an arch. All are lined by flowers in the spring; yellow first, then the colours. Artists, photographers and visitors comment on the quality of the light in the island – and we have so much sky compared to the cities.
Strip away the veneer of modernity and we can regain a sense of that vanished world, when the Bazin brothers strolled past my gate on the way to sign up with the Militia at Les Beaucamps. The world inhabited by George, Artie and Edith may have lost its innocence, but Guernsey is still a beautiful island.
Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on 12th May 2017.