There are some authors who are so adept at creating their fictional world, you can practically close your eyes and see yourself there. Some books are so vivid in its described geography that you could almost draw a map of the location based on the proffered details.
In reading Christine Paice’s first novel, a young adult book set in the early 1970s called The Word Ghost, I gave in to the temptation to Google Brightley Village, the place where much of the book is set. I had one hit: a tiny spot nestled in the Abbeyford Woods a three and a half hour drive from London – provided traffic was favourable.
That couldn’t be it, I thought to myself. Christine’s novel says that Brightley is one and a half hours from London.
It wasn’t just that though – Brightley simply didn’t exist.
Well, it does and it doesn’t. There is no Brightley village in Britain where the nearest train station is Little Hartley, three miles down the long winding lane. But, as Christine told me, Brightley is meant to represent the quintessential English village. And not only that, it’s modelled on the village Christine spent her formative years living in.
‘That came to me when my husband and I and our two small children moved to Australia in 1995,’ Christine began.
She said that she missed England ‘terribly’ and her thoughts would often wander back to that little village.
‘I don’t know why, maybe a sense of refuge or security or just longing – and that was always the place I had in my mind as the backdrop for the story and I couldn’t seem to get away from it very well.’
Christine painted a picture for me of an archetypal English village: the one pub when you drive in, the village green – and a war memorial, because so many English villages had them to commemorate the men they lost in the first and second world wars.
‘You sort of drive through the village and you think, “Oh, where was it on the map?” And you try to find it and you realise you’d actually driven through it five minutes ago.’
All the traits Christine described are embodied in Brightley village. And because it is such a small village (albeit spread out across many acres), The Word Ghost’s teenaged protagonist Rebecca Budde has a relationship to all these discrete parts that make up Brightley.
Brightley’s sole pub is where Rebecca’s sister pulled beers before she left for university – and where Rebecca also ends up working when she comes of age. The “field with the donkeys” is where Rebecca stands with the Lord Byron-esque Alex March when the Brightley Lights, a thick otherworldly fog rolled in. And the village war memorial is where Rebecca spots a fellow villager mingling happily with a group of soldiers who are ghosts of war.
Yes, ghosts. As the title of the book suggests, there is at least one in the story.
The word ghost is Algernon Keats, the second cousin of poet John Keats. Algernon resides in Rebecca’s room (the word “haunt” is never used). Algernon himself is a keen poet (and his poems appear throughout the book), though when he was alive he never came close to achieving the heights that his famous cousin did.
Despite the inclusion of ghosts and the description of Brightley as being a “village with no streetlights”, Christine’s is not a chilling tale. In fact, she was quite matter-of-fact about the no-streetlights thing. It was simply typical of villages back when she was growing up.
In speaking about the village she lived in, she said that at night it was absolutely pitch black.
‘When you went to the countryside that was one of the things you really knew about being away from town, it was pitch black and very dark and you often couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.’
Christine contrasted the village to the town that her family had left, Eton Wick, which she described as “thriving”.
‘Whereas the village we moved to was extremely isolated. There was one bus a day and you had to drive around everywhere; you couldn’t really walk anywhere. Or you could cycle if you were brave.’
She laughed. ‘Brave and foolhardy.’
The period during which Christine lived in her little village was the mid to late 1970s; a few years later than when The Word Ghost is set. The reader is reminded of the times through references to David Cassidy (whom Rebecca’s younger sister is obsessed with), Rebecca’s flared pants and the nuptials of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips. Midway through the book, Australia creeps its way into the English village by way of a front page newspaper story about the Queen opening the Sydney Opera House.
These elements aside, for a teenager living in a village in the 1970s, shutting oneself off from the outside world came remarkably easily. Without wi-fi and smartphones and other modern day conveniences, it was entirely possible to create a tight bubble around yourself and your immediate environment, free of intrusions. Which is how Rebecca’s life in Brightley feels – intimate and self-contained.
‘In the seventies there was no internet. There was, y’know, tele and the radio,’ Christine said.
‘[As a teenager] you watched a bit of tele but you didn’t really plug into the radio and listen to the news programs like your parents did. So there was a lot less information coming at you and you tended to be more enveloped in your own world.’
While news is kept at arm’s length, more old fashioned print forms are prominent in The Word Ghost, with Rebecca’s growing interest in Romantic era poetry and her steadfast love of reading. Rebecca is continually encouraged to do something practical with this passion of hers, to turn input into output. Although she shrugs this off at one point by saying she thinks she might like to become a professional reader, “if there is such a thing”, I couldn’t help wondering whether art might imitate life again in a nesting dolls sort of way.
I asked Christine whether the reader should take these inquiries into Rebecca’s future as a writer as a hint of what was to come – whether Rebecca would end up writing about Brightley the way Christine had been inspired to write a novel set in a village similar to the one she lived in.
Alas, this had not been Christine’s intention.
‘[Rebecca] prefers the real world and the kind of interesting glimmer of Alex March out there,’ Christine said.
‘I think it’s only at the end that she starts to really understand the language, what that actually means. She finds the passion for herself in the poetry.’
Just as Rebecca comes to terms with being in Brightley, Christine too views her past with fondness and now sees the isolation village life brought in a different light.
‘Even though it was difficult when we were there it was a very beautiful place and it was full of the glories of the English countryside,’ she said.
‘The isolation really pushes you further along to your own mind in a way so that you can’t race about and do the things you think you want to do. But sometimes, being somewhere quiet makes you more reflective and thoughtful and imaginative as you grow up, and maybe that’s all good.’
Christine Paice’s The Word Ghost was published in June 2014 by Allen & Unwin.
This piece was first published under the title ‘Writing about fiction towns’ in the August 2014 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.