PART OF THE Summer Reading ISSUE
‘All my novels have been an exploration of place, to a degree, and an important aspect of The Good Neighbours for me is the way in which writing the book was itself a journey of discovery.’
The Good Neighbours
By Nina Allan
Published by riverrun
The book as . . . memory. What is your first memory of books and reading?
Many of my first memories are tied up in books and reading, or being read to. The first beloved book I have individual specific memories of is John Burningham’s Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. I adored, even as a child, the muted, vaguely abstract illustrations. I identified strongly with the little gosling, who struggled to find a place in the world yet who eventually did find one, nonetheless. I demanded the book from the library so many times my mother must have been sick of it. The overtones of unease, of lurking threat spoke to me then as they speak to me now. I only need to catch a glimpse of the cover art and I am immediately transported backwards fifty years.
The book as . . . your work. Tell us about your latest book The Good Neighbours. What did you want to explore in writing it?
The Good Neighbours is a mystery story set on a Scottish island. It explores the fallout from a family murder, and what happens when the best friend of one of the victims returns to the island twenty years afterwards to try and discover the truth behind what happened.
All my novels have been an exploration of place, to a degree, and an important aspect of The Good Neighbours for me is the way in which writing the book was itself a journey of discovery, a means of expressing my thoughts and feelings about the place that had recently become my home. I think of the island in The Good Neighbours as a character in its own right. The very nature of an island setting – the close, small community, the physical barrier between the island and the mainland – is going to have a dramatic effect on any crime story. Not only will the criminal face a greater risk of being discovered, but how is he or she going to get away if the ferries are off?
Most of all, I wanted to explore the relationship between the present and the past, between the real and the imagined. When I began writing The Good Neighbours, I set out to write a crime story that could be enjoyed simply as that – a real-world mystery with clues, multiple suspects, and a satisfying solution. But my love for speculative fiction would not let me stop there. I wanted an extra layer of mystery, a touch of magic and of strangeness that would prompt different questions in the mind of the reader, that might point towards different answers, if the reader cared to see them. The action of the novel is shadowed by the life and tragic downfall of the Victorian artist Richard Dadd, who might just have come to believe in the fairies he painted. These are the ‘good neighbours’ of the title – and they don’t like to hear their name spoken in vain.
The book as . . . inspiration. What is your favourite book that has informed how you see yourself?
So, so many, but in the end I would have to plump for Nicola Barker’s 900-page epic Darkmans. I sometimes think of Barker as my guilty conscience. We are almost exactly the same age, and the power of her achievement constantly blindsides me and goads me on. I believe her to be one of the most original, idiosyncratic writers working in English today. There is a waywardness to her writing – the sense, always, that she doesn’t give a damn about what is on trend, what prominent figures in the literary landscape might be thinking or talking about. She simply writes what she needs to write, focusing on what fascinates, compels or perplexes her. Her books say so much about our current time – and yet they have about them the quality of artefacts, works that have somehow always existed and that will still be discussed and argued over a century from now. She conjures magic from ordinary language. Her ear for dialogue – for people in general – is the product of paying significant, sustained attention to what is going on around her, to the experience of being alive. I love her work, but I love Darkmans especially because it offered me the most jolting, electrifying glimpse of what speculative fiction could be made to do – that is, anything you want it to do, if you dare to reach for it. Darkmans is a book about an Elizabethan magician set in Ashford as the twentieth century becomes the twenty-first. It’s about the triumph of love over darkness. It was shortlisted for the Booker, but it should have won.
The book as . . . a relationship. What is your favourite book that bonded you to someone else?
I think every horror fan in Britain holds a special place in their heart for the Pan Books of Horror Stories, a paperback anthology series edited by Herbert van Thal and running to thirty volumes, one a year from 1959 to 1989. While the first few volumes specialised in the elegant and understated strange fictions of writers such as Joan Aiken, Ray Bradbury, Muriel Spark and Lord Dunsany, in later years the stories tended to be gorier and more explicitly horrific, a fact that reportedly played a part in the series being discontinued. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that when I was in secondary school I was on the receiving end of a severe reprimand from one of my teachers, after the librarian complained that I had been ‘terrifying the other children’.
What I had in fact been doing was treating my fellow students to impromptu readings from the Pan Horror series, all of which were freely available from the library shelves, and containing such choice delights as AGJ Rough’s ‘Something in the Cellar’, George Fielding Eliot’s ‘The Copper Bowl’ (as I remember, this was the one that got me into trouble) and Flavia Richardson’s ‘Behind the Yellow Door’. The stories are classics of their kind, many of them featuring the sort of shock reveal endings that make them archetypical campfire stories. Sharing them with friends, hearing the gasps of mingled horror and pleasure that are the hallmark of such tales of terror was an important lesson for me in the power of story, and a memory that still brings a smile to my face today. Everyone went away happy – except for the staff!
The book as . . . object. What is your favourite beautiful book?
In terms of books I personally own, this would have to be my Folio edition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Not only is it beautifully bound and slipcased, it also contains arresting and occasionally chilling photographic records of the landscapes, locations and persons involved in this most famous of all true crime narratives.
If we are talking about books I have no hope of ever owning, yet whose presence I treasure in this world, then it would have to be John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. I have a passion for botanical and zoological illustration, and Audubon’s youthful ambition to paint all the birds of America yielded some of the finest in existence. The book stands also as an important and poignant historical record, containing images of several birds that are now extinct, including the passenger pigeon and the great auk.
The book as . . . rebellion. What is your favourite book that felt like it revealed a secret truth to you?
In a sense, I feel I am still writing in the aftermath of having read Alan Warner’s debut novel Morvern Callar. The way Warner explores the power of language as personal salvation is made all the more resonant and shocking in coming to us from the perspective of a protagonist who is deeply ill at ease with the written word. If Morvern Callar is about anything, it is the transcendence of poetry, of language as a living music that belongs to us all. An important novel for Scotland, and one I know I owe a debt to.
The book as . . . a destination. What is your favourite book set in a place unknown to you?
I have been in love with Venice as a literary destination ever since I first saw Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now and then went on to read the (equally brilliant) novella by Daphne Du Maurier on which it is based. The couple at the centre of that story go to Venice to forget, to recover from the tragedy that has ripped their lives apart. Yet there is something in the very beauty of the city that drags them deeper into their memories and will not let them go. For me as a writer, there is something irresistible about the duality of Venice – a place of almost indescribable beauty and romance that is slowly being consumed by the waters it sits on, a city that is visited and ‘known’ to millions and yet whose true life takes place mainly off-stage. This duality is given metaphorical expression through the city’s annual carnival – what could be more symbolic of the gulf between appearance and reality, especially nowadays, than a vast procession of revellers hiding behind masks?
Venice has also inspired a marvellous literary legacy, and here I’m going to cheat a little, because how could I possibly choose between The Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers by Henry James, Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and of course Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which gives Venice more than a dozen faces, all of them inscrutable and mysterious. I have somehow managed to navigate my literary love affair with the city without reading Jan Morris’s seminal Venice – I shall put that right this summer – and I am also excited about reading The Book of Venice, a new anthology from Comma Press edited by Orsola Casagrande in which ten writers with personal experience of the city reveal its multitudinous realities.
The book as . . . technology. What has been your favourite reading experience off the page?
In 2019 I was asked to review Cynan Jones’s most recent novel Stillicide, a commission I happily accepted as I love Jones’s writing.
On first picking up the book, I found myself entranced by the language, but left somewhat isolated from the action by the novel’s episodic structure. I then became aware that Stillicide had been written as a series of interlinked short radio plays, intended to be broadcast in advance of publication of the physical book. The time lag between the two meant I had the privilege and the pleasure of hearing the novel even before I’d finished reading it – and the experience transformed my relationship with the written version. A narrative that had initially felt rather cautious and almost opaque was transformed into a compellingly suspenseful story driven forward by characters brought clearly into focus by the human voice. My connection with the book was deepened as a result, and the experience was a reminder of why it has always been vital for me as a writer, to read my work aloud as I go along.
The book as . . . the future. What are you looking forward to reading next?
Once again I am going to cheat by including a whole slew of titles, a sleight of hand that seems appropriate, given that the left-hand side of my desk is currently loaded with more than a dozen books I am actively in the process of getting to. Among them and in no particular order: Joanna Walsh’s Seed, Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom, Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World. I could go on! If we are talking about books that are yet to be published, my most anticipated novel of the summer would have to be Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies. I still count her third novel A Separation as one of my favourites of the past decade, and cannot wait to read her fourth.
The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan is published by riverrun, priced £16.99.
R. M. Murray is founding director and Head of Visual Art & Literature at An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis. He studied in Aberdeen and then at the Glasgow School of Art, where he was in a punk band with Peter Capaldi and Cr …
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