What do you look for in a book for the beach?
Not too thick a spine, nor too glossy a cover for greasy hands or it will fall face down in the sand. This book will be maltreated enough, without an inherent weakness to make it disintegrate even sooner.
More importantly, the subject can’t be too dense. You need something you can immerse yourself in while squinting one eyed against the sun as your hat brim flops in your eyes, and you baste elbow-propped, sticky with sweat and stained by melted ice cream. Your attention is easily distracted by a nearby volleyball game; by drifting conversations that wander past and fade away; by a sad-eyed vendor who trudges towards you with coloured beads or more mobile phone covers than there can possibly be mobile phones in the world. The banana boat comes in and aeroplanes zoom above. So you need recognisable characters who are different enough to be interesting; clear viewpoints that are just stimulating enough to keep you awake but not too alarmed; a setting that’s accessible and preferably attractive, and a compelling plot.
If you’re a tourist on a beach, reading a book with a tourist beach setting, reality and fiction blend in a haze of holiday delight, enlivened by the frisson of new experiences and dashes of local spice. In your dreams and your siestas, two worlds merge in a dimension that’s neither real nor entirely imaginary.
How does a writer provide it for you?
Holidays lend themselves beautifully to fiction. When a writer goes on holiday, it’s as though a special show has been staged for them to exploit. The setting is well delineated, a curved beach with palm tree backdrop; a fairy lit restaurant with a dance floor; a winding coastal road, flower covered cliffs on one side, scenic heart stopping abyss on the other. But sometimes there’s poison in paradise – half built hotels and blackouts; sharks and pirates; murder and mudslides….
Holidays have a structure put in place for the taking, and it’s been used by grandees from Virginia Woolf and Arthur Ransome to contemporary Philip Hensher and any number of crimes and romances in between (just check the Amazon genre categories). The beginning is the arrival; the reader becomes familiar with the location at the same relaxed pace as the fictional visitors, but in the second week or the last days it gets more urgent to extract every drop of pleasure and interest from the trip. It’s easy to establish the safe base of a daily routine and build in set pieces – a carnival, a storm, even a full moon will do, for it would go unnoticed in normal daily life. Then, if all goes well, the homecoming may have a sense of achievement or if questions have arisen, one of disillusion. Or there may be no return home…
And, as in pantomime, there are stock characters. The newly married, wide eyed couple. The once handsome loner, elegant here but he’d be louche at home. There’s often a hotel proprietor or a guide, knowledgeable and sexy and just a little bit sad, who provides useful local details and can take some narrative responsibility. The writer can play around with a mysterious traveller, who compensates for the holiday bore (a walk on part only) or set up difficulties via the liability who has an accident or gets ill. It’s mean but irresistible to contrast an innocent beach belle with a woman who, bulging in a strappy top, represents the fading flowers at the end of the too hot day. Her male counterpart, in silly shorts, winks and tries above his whisky always to sound wise.
The writer can keep the world real by occasionally signposting children, building a sandcastle or failing to fly a kite and that’s all that’s needed by way of characterisation for them. But (apart from the children) what you see is not what you get: on holiday appearance is everything and back stories are hidden, but swimwear gives away fewer clues to class, occupation or taste than normal clothing would. These people meet, or want to meet and don’t, or meet too often, fall in foolish love, give away too much too soon and have to retrieve the situation within a time limited framework. They act without inhibition; they bare their souls after making the assumption that they’ll probably never meet again. Then something happens – a crime, a disaster, an accident, or maybe the weather just breaks. They react, they cope or they don’t, they survive or – doubly tragically when it happens on a dream holiday – they die.
Meanwhile the locals watch, and brood, and plot and celebrate…
You’ll find all this and more in “The Infinity Pool”, on offer on Kindle at 99p / $1.43 until May 21st but well worth paying the full price for too. Have a good trip!
© Jessica Norrie 2016