By sheer chance I am now reading two very different books that are both set in Cornwall: Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition and Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley mystery, Careless in Red.
I’ve never been to Cornwall (although I very much want to), so I can’t judge if both writers have captured the spirit of the place. But the backdrop of each story is so different that sometimes I feel they are set in different worlds.
Elizabeth George’s story is set on the coastline in an imaginary village with local small businesses catering to the tourists, especially those looking for outdoor sports like rock-climbing and surfing. As Elizabeth George explains, she always takes her inspiration from a real place, so readers familiar with Cornwall may be able to discover through the realistic description the real-life name and location of Casvelyn.
The book is set off season, so there is a definite small-town, gossipy, tightly-knit-against-outsiders and rather grim atmosphere. I’m not sure what are the most popular clichés on Cornwall, but there are definitely pasties, clotted cream, nice landscapes, back roads and lots of wind. Now, I’m not really a sports person (ok, I can hear Mr. Smithereens roaring with laughter already — I’m not at all a sports person), so I don’t care much about surfing, and I find myself rather annoyed by the very Cornish names of the massive cast of characters (it’s not the fact that they are difficult to remember, it’s the sheer number of them…)…
Mmh, maybe I’m getting off on the wrong foot with that one. I’ve often wondered about the fact that Elizabeth George, an American, writes typically English mysteries, and how true (or wrong) her books sound to British (or Cornish) ears. Most previous novels didn’t bother me that much, but on this one, her concern about local realism seems forced to me, even to my completely foreign ears.
Patrick Gale’s story is set in Penzance, and it definitely appeals a lot more to me, even if the subject was unfamiliar at first. It’s a family drama centered around the mother, an artist suffering from bipolar disorders and severe bouts of depression. The small-town feeling is also present (and the wind, but not the pasties 😉 !), but seen under a warm, human light, especially as one of the adult sons stays with his father to sort out stuff after his mother’s death. He appreciates the chitchat in the local shops, the feeling that people know and care about each other, although he is reminded of his teenaged years when all this slowness and closeness was oppressive and made him yearn to leave for the big city. It helps to say that the story is set in the Quaker community (a faith I didn’t know the first thing about), so it gives a calm, intimate and subdued atmosphere, completely at odds with the Elizabeth George mystery.
I’m sure that the truth is somewhere in between, or maybe in a combination of both. Imagine a bipolar killer who enjoys surfing, shopping for Cornish pasties in Penzance, before joining cliff-climbers going to a Quaker meeting… not really the best of both worlds!