Blog Tour: Literary Landscapes, edited by John Sutherland

The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.

Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.

One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).

The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.


Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

14 responses

  1. This sounds like a rather lovely Christmas present. Thanks for alerting me to the Ondaatje Prize. I hadn’t come across it before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m currently reading the latest winner, Pascale Petit’s poetry collection Mama Amazonica.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really need to get both this book and its predecessor: they are going on my wish list right now!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m also adding both of these to my wishlist immediately. I enjoy descriptions of places, and even have a tumblr blog of various literary ‘homes’, so this is right up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the sound of this. And do read ‘The Secret River’. I so enjoyed it, some years ago, and would definitely read it again – if I had time to read anything twice ….*sigh*.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d convinced myself that I owned it, but then checked the shelves and realized it’s Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection instead.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am loving this book, it is one I will treasure. I don’t think I had heard of the Ondaatje prize before, place is so very important to me in my reading. My post about this book is up next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I wholly enjoyed the first book. The typos, in a book of this production quality, would drive me batty, however. Why???

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I presume it was rushed towards publication? Who knows. I don’t like having to get out my correcting pencil on such a lovely gift book!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this, Rebecca, will add this to my wish list too, looks terrific.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That looks like an absolutely inviting read. Enjoyed your review!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I didn’t know about the Ondaatje Prize either. I’m dipping into this book at the moment – while I enjoyed its predecessor it was very spoilery and there was often not enough about the actual ‘Wonderlands’ in each entry, This one is so far better. One glaring omission for me though is Alan Garner’s Alderley Edge – few English writers are so geographically grounded in their writing – but there is loads to interest in this lovely book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about the spoilers. A lot of these pieces could potentially serve as short introductions to reprinted classics, and it’s common in such intros to find a minute discussion of the plot and ending (thus my habit of always reading them last rather than first!). I’ve never read any Garner but had my eye on his recent memoir.


  10. […] It would make an especially suitable gift for someone heading off to study English at university.  Rebecca’s review  […]


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