Five Rural Novels I’ve Read

I was brought up in the countryside but I’m much more comfortable living in an urban environment, a small city rather than a metropolis where cinema, Cover image for You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Mackengalleries and music venues are all within walking distance, not to mention the odd bookshop or two. I love the beauty of landscape plus the odd glimpse of wildlife if I’m lucky but I’m well aware that there’s more than that to life in the countryside. Below are five books that take readers on a rural literary visit, all with links to review on this blog.

I’m starting with Frances Macken’s You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here whose title says it all for those of us who couldn’t wait to get away to the city. Beginning in the 1990s, Macken’s debut is set in Ireland where ten-year-old Evelyn, Katie and Maeve are inseparable, following them into a young adulthood in which each turns out to be not quite what the others expected. Evelyn is the boss of this disparate threesome with Katie second in command and Maeve trailing behind. When a new girl disappears without trace, a long shadow of suspicion is cast over gossip ridden Glenbruff. Katie finally gets away to art school leaving Evelyn behind but not her pernicious influence. Macken has a sharp ear for dialogue, scattering her novel with smartly funny lines while capturing that desperate longing for bright lights and opportunity through Katie, torn between her idolisation of Evelyn and her need to escape.

If Macken’s novel isn’t enough to puncture any ideas of a pastoral idyll Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land should finish the job with its exploration of the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a Cover Imagemodern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now, laying bare the deprivation in the countryside in this brilliant piece of storytelling.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley takes us back to the early 1930s when a young woman turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside reveal a nostalgia for a world that never existed rather than concern for those who live there. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.

There’s a good deal of that to be found in Lucy Wood’s Weathering. It opens with the drowning of Pearl, birdwatcher, jewellery repairer and mother to Ada. After the funeral, Ada arrives with her six-year-old daughter, Pepper, to get her mother’s house in order and slips reluctantly back into village life. Pepper, scattered and a little pugnacious but curious and fascinated with their new surroundings, makes herself at home, picking up her grandmother’s camera and coaxing her old cat back into the house. That synopsis may sound a little bland but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s beautiful word pictures coupled with sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.

Cover image for Nightingale by Marina KempFinally, we’re off to France for Marina Kemp’s Nightingale in which Marguerite has come to nurse Jérôme in the once-grand house where his sons were brought up. She’s met by the unwelcoming Brigitte, appointed to oversee arrangements at Rossignol. Plain and uneducated, Brigitte is married to handsome, quietly cultured Henri, an odd match made very young. Marguerite is lonely but unresponsive to the overtures made by Suki, the Iranian woman who has failed to overcome the villagers’ suspicions despite living in Saint-Sulpice for nearly two decades. As the summer wears on, Jérôme softens towards Marguerite but it becomes clear that both she and Henri have secrets whose disclosure may ruin their lives. Kemp’s story unfolds luxuriously, full of striking descriptions of the French summer, against a backdrop of a village riven with gossip where difference is viewed sideways rather than embraced.

What about you – any novels set in the countryside you’d like to share?

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29 thoughts on “Five Rural Novels I’ve Read”

  1. Yes, I second the Harvest recommendation – a relentless book set in a sort of timeless rural community. I also liked Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. It’s not all idyllic landscapes and birdsongs, as you know!
    Romanian literature has more than its share of such novels, not surprising given that there was a Peasant Rebellion in 1907 and forced collectivisation during Communist times.

  2. I don’t generally categorize books – but two of my favorite countryside books are the Anne of Green Gables series, and Gerald Durrell’s animal books.

  3. Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore is set in a town that few would find idylic in the Texas panhandle. Yet, the arid landscape is lovingly described. The book is a dark story that begins with the aftermath of a brutal rape and follows how this event affects the women of the town. This book also deals with themes of those who stay and those who leave.

  4. All Among the Barley is the only one of those I have read. The Amanda Craig appeals to me though (I recently read The Golden Rule). I really enjoy novels set in a rural landscape, especially when the descriptions of place are richly evocative. One of my favourites of the last couple of years was Midwinter by Fiona Melrose.

  5. Some brilliant sounding titles here and I haven’t read any of them! Melissa Harrison in particular is now firmly on my list, thank you

  6. I love books with rural settings. I also grew up in the country – until I was 10 – and then a small community about 10 minutes outside of town. I never had the feeling of wanting to get out, but I knew lots of people who did. I hadn’t thought about it much until now, but I think many of my books tend to take place in small towns rather than in completely rural areas… I guess there’s more to work with!

  7. I’m curious which big city you thought you’d live in but then found it wasn’t for you? Amanda Craig’s books are kinda hard to find over here, but I’ve read a couple and I thoroughly enjoyed them! As for rural stories here, I think first of W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind (1947) a beautiful and moving classic boyhood story about life on the prairie. He’s probably just as hard to find overseas as Robertson Davies, but he’s worth a look!

    1. London, inevitably! I hope you can track down one of the Craigs. I’ll look out for Mitchell although I suspect his book will be harder to find than Davies’. I have the full set of those and loved them.

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