Why are so few novels set on moors? They are wild and mysterious, brooding and haunted; all the ingredients for an interesting backdrop to a riveting novel. Yet, Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore, The Hound of Baskerville by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier and the novels by the Brontë sisters are the only names that immediately come to mind. Certainly, no significant contemporary novelist seems to have entered that territory. I asked novelist Joanna Briscoe, author of Mothers and Other Lovers, Skin, and Sleep With Me, about this anomaly and she was similarly struck. But then she offered a simple explanation. Perhaps the very nature of the moors was the clue to why that territory was not popular with many novelists. “So few people can actually live on them and … writers write about where they grow up. But, you would still think that someone would come in from outside and write about it.”
But Briscoe has more than compensated for this lack of exploration by other novelists. She has managed to distil the very essence of Dartmoor, her childhood home, into words and used it as the backdrop to You, her recent novel based in Dartmoor, charting the haunting of a mother-daughter relationship. The novel begins with the daughter, Cecelia, returning to Dartmoor with her three daughters to live in her childhood home, Wind Tor House. The central mystery, the identity of the daughter Cecelia is looking for, descends like mist and is left to hovers in the reader’s mind as Briscoe manoeuvres the novel through the narrow lanes of the relationship between Cecelia and her mother, Dora. The atmosphere is set from the beginning of the novel. The very first line in the novel is “It’s haunted, she thought.”
Briscoe demonstrates her mastery as a novelist in her use of language, character development and control over the structure. The language throughout the novel, luscious and poetic, is a thing to be savoured. Descriptive passages scan, more poetry than prose. A passage sings about the arrival of the ever present rain as it “soaked the flatter lands to the north of the moor then rose across Kitty Tor, clattering against the clapper bridges, pouring over clitter, driving the Dart with its weight. Rain filled Burrator Reservoir and sluiced the disused tin quarries near Huntingdon Warren, across Dockmell, Drywall and the Weir, making cows steam and thatches ache.”
The characters are so lifelike that you can imagine coming across them on the moors, emerging from the mist clinging to the granite strewn tors. Reserved, repressed Dora has spent a lifetime serving the needs of her four children, her hapless husband and the many hippy tenants who inhabit the various barns and outbuildings of Wind Tor House. She has also been keeping secrets from others but also from herself. Briscoe says that she wanted to depict Dora as “terrified of things being revealed but also self-revelation. It is not only the generational thing but she thinks by not looking at things she will cope with them.” Whilst Cecelia has spent a lifetime achieving – university education, a career as children’s author, and her own children.
Outwardly Dora and Cecelia share no characteristics, no personality traits and yet there is an unconscious symmetry in their lives, almost as if daughter is unconsciously treading in the mother’s footsteps, leading to mistakes and missed opportunities. An echo that Briscoe says she did not intentionally construct. “I never meant for it to exactly echo…Thematically, yes there are echoes but structurally, I don't know. Well, that wasn't intentional exactly.”
Structurally, the action in the novel alternates between the present and a twenty year old past, when Dora is a mother of four young children and Cecelia a teenager. The novel is a master class in plotting, it walks a tightrope from beginning to end, maintaining the suspense, never flinching, wobbling or falling off. This balancing act is maintained right up to the end of the novel. The ending of itself is an indication of the level of control Briscoe, as a novelist, exerts over the arc of the story. Briscoe says that this was intentional. She says she finds it “annoying when they [novelists] don't end things properly. It happens so often, people just race their endings or don't know how to end them. I can always when they are just racing it. Even in some of the great novels you can see that happening.” She wanted the ending to be left open and yet totally tied up. “I hate novels where things are not tied up. So, I wanted to tie up every strand but then I didn't want it to be too pat … So that was very intentional.” And, her confidence is justified. I don’t think I am giving anything away by saying that the ending, when it comes, manages to be both satisfying and ambivalent.
So it came as a surprise when Briscoe revealed that the most challenging thing in writing the novel was containing the story. She says she wrote something like one hundred and sixty thousand words before pruning it back to about one hundred and twelve thousand words of the finished novel. As she herself said, “I had all sorts of stories planned...But I was shooting off in the wrong directions.” And, apparently she wrote sixteen drafts. “I don’t think it works for me without a lot of redrafting,” she says. In the end, she cut all those extraneous stories right down because they were just distorting the novel. The old adage “kill your darlings”, which many a first time novelists find hard to accept, clearly applies equally to established novelists as well. Briscoe demonstrates how good novelists actually put it to work to amazing effect.
Her advice to aspiring novelists seems apt given her dedication to her form. “Write… I would elaborate,” she says, “but you know that is the truth…you are going to make mistakes, everyone is going to make mistakes…And you make new and different mistakes with each novel and you set yourself new challenges…it’s a really long apprenticeship, you have to work for a really long time.”
Writing novels in the Briscoe fashion would seem to be like hiking on the moors the very first time, it is tough and unpredictable terrain, there are few distinguishing marks to guide you along and often the fog will engulf you. But the trick seems to be to keep going with the end in mind.