Hopefully you’ve all read Lesley Glaister’s, As Far As You Can Go. I chose this as I’m going off on my own Australian adventure next month and what struck me the first time I read this novel was that although the landscape had been captured so vividly it always seemed like it was purely as part of the characters’ experiences, rather than just descriptive writing to let the reader know where they were.
This sentence from early in the book when Cassie and Graham first arrive in Australia and are feeling overwhelmed by the alien landscape and intense heat illustrates this really well, I think:
The gorge appears, at last. A crack in the red earth, zigzag patterned cliffs rearing up to one side, white gums against the blue and red and startling green of the rushy grasses
Here we can sense their alienation through crack, rearing, startling, without Glaister ever having to tell us that they are feeling these things.
For most people, when you mention Australia it brings to mind a land of dream lifestyles – endless sunshine, beaches and happy smiling people (especially for people in the UK where it’s grey, rainy and cold a lot of the time!) – but the Australia that Glaister gives us is harsh, forbidding and in places the way she wrote about the intensity of the heat and the light put me in mind of Albert Camus in The Outsider. How it can intimidate and terrorise.
The internal landscapes she gives us for Cassie and Graham are also vivid and for me it all came together to give a sometimes overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and tension. Not only is the heat stifling, the living environment is too and at times the sexual tension between all four of the main characters is menacing to say the least. What did you think?
The naiveté of Cassie and Graham in the face of all they were presented with on arrival at Larry and Mara’s odd home was quite astounding. But I thought Glaister handled this well too by not only presenting the conflicting stories that they tell themselves about what is going on but also through their self-absorption, their neediness and vanity, as they face up to aging, settling down and the fact that life doesn’t always turn out to be as exciting as you wanted it to be.
This conflict in character was presented right from the start in the opening line:
The lift is lined with mirrors, with many Cassies.
This sense of Cassie not knowing who she really is comes through again and again in her fantasies of her imaginary TV show, Cassie’s Outback Kitchen, her plans for the organic garden that never come to fruition, her yearning for her and Graham to have a “proper monogamous relationship” while at the same time she’s flattered by, and plays up to, Larry’s sexual attraction to her. How she keeps telling herself that she’ll do things differently today but never does; blames it on the heat, the isolation, everything and everyone but herself.
Despite this, and because of this, she is a character we can empathise with. As is Graham – he’s not that likeable with his cheating and immaturity, the way he deals with difficult situations by becoming sullen and sometimes violent – but the way the landscape and setting has been weaved so intrinsically into their characters we can relate, understand, forgive. Who wouldn’t react to such extremes with extreme behaviours of their own?
For me, as a writer, what I have learned from this novel is that character is setting and vice versa. So for the exercise this month, write a piece in which your character is in a place they’ve never been before and use the descriptions of the landscape to convey how it’s making them feel rather than telling us.
I’ll do the same and post it up here in the comments some time in the next couple of weeks and I hope you’ll share yours too. So we can all read and comment on each other’s to keep learning, keep getting better as readers and writers. But in the meantime I’d love to know what you thought of the book too.
Look forward to reading your exercises soon!