Friday, 17 February 2012

Amsterdam to London by Keren David

Heron in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam
It's a very odd thing, reading a book set in a place you know well.  It can suck you into a book and make everything seem even more real and true -  or it can gently remind you that you're reading fiction.
Take John Green's latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars. I enjoyed the beginning, where we are introduced to teens Hazel (who has terminal cancer)and Augustus (who has had a leg amputated after suffering bone cancer), but I thought their conversations were just a little too pretentious to  ring true. Then they went to Amsterdam. At first  I had  little quibbles ('the taxi driver wouldn't have driven through the city centre, if he's going from the airport to the Overtoom') but soon forgot them, as I was sucked in, more and more to the idea of these two in this place I knew so well. I could see them on the canals and in the streets. My imagination and memories filled in the gaps that John Green had left. Eventually there was a description of a particular corner of the  Vondel Park  that  made my heart lurch.

Here it is: 'Before us, hundreds of people passed, jogging and biking and Rollerblading. Amsterdam was a city designed for movement and activity, a city that would rather not travel by car, and so inevitably I felt excluded from it. But God it was beautiful, the creek carving a path around the huge tree, a heron stading still at the water's edge, searching for breakfast amid the millions of elm petals floating in the water.

 I read that, I recognised the  deep-down truth of it, I fell in love with the book, and I forgot my doubts about Hazel and Augustus. They were as real to me as the herons and the skaters in the park that I'd seen so often and knew so well.
 In contrast, the depiction of London in  Jennifer E Smith's The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight kept on jolting me, because I knew more than the author. I kept on wanting to tell her things. For example, British weddings tend not to feature loads of adult bridesmaids all dressed the same, and they don't go down the aisle before the bride. Clinking a glass at a British wedding means a speech, not a kiss. Middle-class families with lots of children don't tend to live in Paddington - just three examples, but I could go on and on. 'Everything in this city seems old, but charmingly so, like something out of a movie.' is not a meaningful description  to a Londoner.
I concluded that  Jennifer E Smith's research had mostly been conducted by watching Richard Curtis films, and to be fair, none of the above would put off most readers of this soft-centred romance. But they put me off, and meant that I didn't take the love story or the main character's angst over her father's remarriage all that seriously.
When you don't know a setting, the details don't matter. But when you do - they matter more than you realise.


  1. I quite agree about settings which is why I have spent so much time on Hayling Island, walking and walking all the settings for my novels. Lovely post - I love Amsterdam - will have to read that book now.
    And isn't it time you set a teen crime novel in Amsterdam, Keren!

  2. I think I'll let John Green have his moment...

  3. Great post! I agree, it's the smallest details that can jolt you out of a narrative - or pull you in with the familiar, of course. Often the small inaccuracies are things taken for granted (perhaps like your clinking glasses example) that you wouldn't necessarily think to check or research. I think US/UK differences are particularly troublesome since in many ways we're so similar, and yet we can be so different in unexpected ways.

  4. Yet another fantastic post on The Edge. Keren I agree whole heartedly about the importance of getting the settings right. It is the details that can ruin a story for me. I get the feeling that the writer hasn't bothered to do their research properly so I then ask myself what else haven't they bothered to find out and I lose faith in the book. Details can make a book as you so rightly point out.

  5. Oddly the book that I'd say really captures its setting is The Crow's Road by Iain Banks - oddly because the setting is an imaginary one, though layered over a real area of West Coast Scotland. It's possible to stand and look over the mud flats at Crinan and imagine Banks' deep sea loch and busy port there instead, or to look for the railway viaduct crossing Loch Fyne near Minard.

  6. Totally agree that wrong details can really pull you out of a text. That's why I like to make places up!