Irish author Sheila O’Flanagan Finds Joy Visiting Europe Through The Pages of These Novels …
One of the most spectacular regions in Spain is Navarre, which borders the Basque country and the Pyrenees to the north, and stretches to the Ebro river valley in the south. Its capital is Pamplona, a city etched into literary culture courtesy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which honours the San Fermin festival and the running of the bulls in pages that reek of blood-stained sawdust and cheap red wine. Being honest, Hemingway’s masterpiece made me want to avoid Pamplona (although in the end I was glad to have spent time drinking somewhat better wine in the vibrant Plaza del Castillo) but I was drawn to Navarre by a different – though no less blood-stained – type of writing.
The Baztán Trilogy by Dolores Redondo takes us north of the city into high, forested mountains with deep, dark valleys that hide secrets of a culture based on the ancient mythology of an evil demon who kills people in their sleep. The often eerie isolation of the mountains is brilliantly captured by Redondo, who guides us through misty, ethereal forests, along gushing rivers and secret pathways to places that threaten and welcome in equal measure. As though saturated by the seemingly perpetual rain, the books are heavy in the atmosphere of a country and a people whose relationship with the modern world is solely on their terms. Aching to see it myself, I drove along the twisting mountain roads to the small town of Elizondo, and arrived on a local fiesta day where oversized papier mâché dolls were paraded through the narrow streets to the rhythmic beat of a drum. I could imagine a crime scene here, a brightly-coloured doll soaking in the fast-running river, its creator have been taken by the demon. But fiction gave way to reality as the morning downpour abruptly cleared to almost painfully blue skies, and the crowd abandoned their drums to have beer and tapas at riverside cafés.
I love the mountains and the rivers and the ancient secrets they protect, but the sun-drenched Mediterranean has always enchanted me, possibly since I was introduced to the books of Mary Stewart as a teenager. Her elegantly written romantic mysteries bring young, feisty women to a variety of glorious Mediterranean locations, including Greece where, in My Brother Michael, Camilla becomes entangled in the aftermath of a clandestine WW2 operation as she walks through hills covered in cyclamen and wildflowers. Stewart’s descriptive writing is so vivid that it’s impossible not to feel the blaze of the sun on your shoulders or smell the heady floral scent as you roam the hills with her. Equally vivid are her descriptions of Corfu in This Rough Magic, where white rocks tumble towards the peacock shades of the glittering Aegean, and our heroine, Lucy, swims with a dolphin before becoming embroiled in a theatrical mystery. My armchair travelling does not always feature chasing murders or evading them in rain soaked forests or a Mediterranean island, but Europe is always a joy to visit through the pages of a good book.
While Dolores Redondo sets her novels in the present, and Mary Stewart’s are in the more recent past, walking the streets of a sun-baked Pompeii in the days before the devastating volcanic eruption that destroyed the city is extremely evocative, in Robert Harris’s novel of the same name. It’s heartbreaking to virtually stroll along the city’s cobbled streets with their shops and bars and dressmakers, before entering one of the beautiful villas overlooking the Bay of Naples, while carrying the burden of knowledge the citizens of Pompeii don’t have. That, even as their engineers are studying the settling tanks designed to collect impurities from the water supply and wondering what is blocking the pipes, they are too late, and that Pompeii will be preserved, both in real life and in countless books, as a monument to one tragic moment in time.
It’s certainly true, as Mason Cooley once observed, that reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are. Europe is my home both literally and figuratively, and even when I’m physically confined to one corner of it, the joy of travelling in my mind to other countries and other cities is always balm for the soul and always a source of inspiration.
After a career in finance and banking, Sheila O’Flanagan’s love for writing blossomed. Over eight million copies of her novels have been sold worldwide – her forte is curating stories about relationships in all their many forms. Her latest novel, Three Weddings and a Proposal, is published by Headline and is out now.