Mark World Book Day with 18+ novels set in the beautiful East Anglian countryside
PUBLISHED: 15:40 07 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:02 08 March 2017
With its quaint villages, bustling towns, colourful fields and miles of dramatic coastline, East Anglia provides the perfect backdrop for stories of all genres; from romance to crime, chilling thrillers to childhood adventures.
It is no surprise then that a wide variety of authors have been setting their novels in locations across the region for centuries including Dickens, Shakespeare, Arthur Ransome and more recently Anthony Horowitz for his children’s horror Groosham Grange. Indeed the list is rather lengthy, so with thoughts turning to literature for the 20th anniversary of World Book Day (March 2), we asked people for their experience of books featuring the varied East Anglian countryside.
The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry)
This was the Waterstones Book of the Year and a Sunday Times bestseller. The story begins in London in 1893 where the recently widowed Cora Seaborne starts her new life with as much relief as sadness - her marriage was not a happy one. She moves to Colchester, with her son Francis, where she hears rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the parish of Aldwinter and she is immediately enthralled. A keen naturalist, she is convinced that the magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species and sets out on its trail where she meets William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar. He and Cora strike up an intense relationship, eventually changing each other’s lives in ways entirely unexpected.
Jan Shimwell, Colchester, says: “A compelling read, with a cast of fascinating characters moving between Victorian Colchester and the atmospheric, eerie landscape of the Essex marshes in pursuit of the serpent. Rather weird but wonderful, with an ending which did not disappoint!”
Love on a Branch Line (John Hadfield)
Set in Norfolk, this comedy was first published in 1959 and tells the story of a young civil servant who is sent to investigate the goings-on at an East Anglian railway line, with a view to closing it. The eccentric Lord Flamborough lives in a train on his private ‘branch-line’, playing vintage jazz. His three daughters are all blissfully free of inhibitions which has a liberating effect on the rather stuffy civil servant.
Paul Geater, Suffolk, says: “Love on a Branch Line is set in Norfolk although the author lived at Barham, near Ipswich, and always said it was inspired by the Mid Suffolk Light Railway. It’s a typical Ealing comedy-style story that was made into a successful BBC series in the 1990s.”
A Warning to the Curious (M. R. James)
M. R. James is considered by many to be the most terrifying English writer and his classic supernatural tales draw on the terrors of the everyday, often in closed rooms and night-time settings where imagination runs riot. Lonely country houses, remote inns, ancient churches or the manuscript collections of great libraries provide settings for unbearable menace. His stories have lost none of their power to unsettle and disturb. The town of Seaburgh in this novel was based on the coastal town of Aldeburgh, which was the home of M. R. James’s maternal grandmother.
Trevor Heaton, Norfolk, says: “No list of East Anglian storytelling should fail to include the works of M R James. The Cambridge don – brought up in Great Livermere near Bury St Edmunds - is widely regarded as one of this country’s greatest-ever ghost story writers. Several of his best stories are set in our region, including two of his most famous: ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (inspired by Felixstowe) and ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (Aldeburgh). There are many collected editions to choose from too – one of the best value is Collected Ghost Stories of M R James.”
The Fourth Protocol (Frederick Forsyth)
A crack Soviet agent, placed under cover in a quiet Suffolk town, begins to assemble a jigsaw of devastation. MI5 investigator John Preston, working against the most urgent of deadlines, leads an operation to prevent the act of murderous destruction aimed at tumbling Britain into revolution.
Lynne Mortimer, Suffolk, says: “Written in 1984, this thriller from the writer of Day of the Jackal involves a plot to secure a hard left labour government in order to promote Russian interests. Ho hum. The real interest for East Anglia arrives in the form of Soviet agent Valeri Petrovsky, who sets up home in Ipswich where he begins to assemble the parts necessary to build an atomic device intended to be detonated near RAF Bentwaters, near Woodbridge. The story names the real life Ipswich estate agent David Knights who helps Petrovsky (not knowing of his mission of course) rent a house on a modern housing development to the west of the town. It is all a bit dated in the light of the break up of the Soviet Union but it was fun to know the setting. For those that recall the film of the book, Pierce Brosnan was the baddie and, at the end, his plan was thwarted with the help of a fleet of helicopters that flew in under the Orwell Bridge.”
Waterland (Graham Swift)
Spanning some 240 years in the lives of its haunted narrator and his ancestors, Graham Swift’s multilayered chronicle set in the Fens of East Anglia is widely regarded as one of the finest British novels of the 1980s. Waterland is a book that takes in eels and incest, ale-making and madness - the heartless sweep of history and a tormented family romance.
Ross Bentley, Sudbury, says: “This is one of my favourite books. It’s about a long and dark family history, full of secrets, pain and longing - all set in the brooding landscape of the Fens - with its big skies and flat, dark earth. At the heart of the story is a history teacher called Tom who is being forced out of his school because the headmaster wants to focus on science subjects and feels history is becoming irrelevant. In response Tom starts teaching his pupils his own history based on his family’s story and his own recollections - and what a story it is. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Waterland is a long read but a tale fantastically told and book that really captures this unique part of East Anglia.”
Joseph and his Brethren (H. W. Freeman)
This 1928 novel is based in Suffolk and tells the story of the Geaiters, a farming family who take on Crakenhill Farm and, through dedicated hard work, make it profitable. Benjamin Geaiter has served time for manslaughter is rumoured, to beat his wife who dies in the first chapter. The sons toy with the idea of leaving but are always drawn back to the farm. When their old housekeeper dies, she is replaced by eighteen-year-old Nancy who makes Crakenhill much more pleasant but disrupts the delicately balanced relationships between the men.
Paul Geater, Suffolk, says: “It’s about a farming family living at Bruisyard, near Saxmundham, and was very successful when first published.
It was required reading in my family - the main characters of his book are the Geaiter family! - and early in my career I met Freeman who was well into his 80s. He lived at Offton near Ipswich.”
H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald)
As a child, the author was determined to become a falconer. Years later, when her father died and she was struck deeply by grief, she became obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She bought Mabel and took her home to Cambridge, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals. The book opens with her trip to watch hawks over the Brecklands. An unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming.
Chris Shimwell, Suffolk, says: “The idea of watching goshawks in Thetford Forest is partly what drew me to this moving and eye-opening tale. The author recounts her struggle with depression following the death of her father. Working in Cambridge, she begins training a goshawk and through their journey together we learn more about surviving a devastating bereavement.”
Consumed (Abbie Rushton)
A young adult novel set in north Norfolk that follows the lives of two teenagers. Myla used to love spending long, hot days on the beach with her sister, Asha - until the day Asha was taken from her. That was two years ago and Myla hasn’t been down to the beach - or even left the house - since. Crippling agoraphobia and panic attacks keep her locked inside a nightmare of the day she can never forget. Her main contact with the outside world is online until she meets Jamie, who is new in town, and also struggles with things most people find easy. Gradually the pair begin to trust each other. Are they willing to reveal their secrets and risk discovering the truth? Or will they let their pasts consume them for good...
Donna-Louise Bishop, Norfolk, says: “This is a gripping read which oozes with delightful Norfolk mannerism and beauty. This thriller, from author of high-acclaimed novel Unspeakable, tells to story of Myla and Jamie, who are trying to break free from the anxieties and fears that are holding them hostage. Although an obvious ending, it’s how the events unfold which keeps you turning the pages.”
The Norfolk Mystery (Ian Sansom)
The first book in the ‘County Guides’ detective series. It is 1937 and disillusioned war veteran Stephen Sefton responds to a mysterious advertisement for a job where ‘intelligence is essential’. So begins his association with Professor Swanton Morley who is working on a history of traditional England, with a guide to every county. They start in Norfolk, but when the vicar of Blakeney is found hanging from his church’s bellrope, Morley and Sefton find themselves drawn into a rather more fiendish plot.
Chris Shimwell, Suffolk, says: “A story with copious amounts of Latin quotations and eccentric characters may not be to everyone’s taste, but the first in Ian Sansom’s County Guides series has spawned three sequels, with the main character Professor Swanton Morley also returning to East Anglia in the latest tale: The Essex Poison. The Norfolk Mystery is an engaging tale and what unfolds plays with traditional murder mystery clichés but is full of detail about the local area.”
The Giant Under the Snow (John Gordon)
Three children find an ornate Celtic buckle but have no idea that it has awakened a giant who has lain at rest for centuries. Little do they know that an evil warlord has also awaited this moment and the chance to wield their deadly power. Set in Norfolk, this is a chilling tale full of menace and suspense the final battle between good and evil must be fought. Although it may be hard to pin down exact locations, the East Anglian countryside is unmistakable.
Andy Russell, Norfolk, says: “First published in 1968, The Giant Under the Snow, is a tale of magic, ancient evil and curses all wrapped up in East Anglian folklore.”
22 Britannia Road (Amanda Hodgkinson)
This book tells the story of an immigrant family - Janusz, Silvana and their son Aurek - who are reunited in Ipswich following years apart during the second world war. After fleeing Poland at the outbreak of the war, their time apart was spent in vastly different and, sometimes, shocking ways. The author tells the story from the three main characters’ perspectives and focusses on how they try to rebuild their family at 22 Britannia Road, Ipswich and leave the past behind them.
Kate Peartree, Ipswich, says: “This was an interesting and very moving read with twists and turns along the way. People living in Ipswich and Felixstowe are likely to recognise the settings and the book gives an insight into what life may have been like here soon after the end of the Second World War.”
When Marnie Was There (Joan G. Robinson)
Set on the north Norfolk Coast, this tale is one of nostalgia, pathos and strange goings on. After a long bout of ill-health, 12-year-old Anna is sent away to spend the summer in Heacham. While exploring the area, Anna notices an abandoned house across the water. Curious, she sails over and happens upon Marnie, a young girl who says she lives there. As the story unfolds, Marnie’s presence becomes more intriguing as the old house morphs from being empty and locked up, to filled with laughter and lavish goings on, to being bare and dust-filled again the next day.
Susie Kelly, Norfolk, says: “What starts out as a charming adventure on the coast, unfurls into something a lot darker, and the story had me captivated right from the start. The book has since been sensitively adapted and animated by Japanese film makers Studio Ghibli, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2016 Oscars.”
The Crime Writer (Jill Dawson)
Eccentric American novelist Patricia Highsmith is hiding out in a cottage in Suffolk, to concentrate on her writing and escape her fans. She has another motive too - a secret romance with a married lover based in London. But it soon becomes clear that all her demons have come with her. Prowlers, sexual obsessives, frauds, imposters, suicides and murderers: the tropes of her fictions clamour for her attention, rudely intruding on her peaceful Suffolk retreat.
Johnny James, Aldeburgh Book Shop, says: “This is a novel about a novelist writing a novel in Suffolk! Some of the story happens in Earl Soham and some happens in Aldeburgh. It’s clever, rather gripping and wonderfully sinister.”
The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)
The story is a psychological thriller told from the point of view of three women: Rachel, Anna, and Megan. Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens, and she has started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. Then she sees something shocking. Now everything has changed and Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.
This book was number one on The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 and has since been made into a movie starring Emily Blunt. It contains several East Anglian references though it was based in and around London.
Katy Bax, Suffolk, says: “I read this book after watching the film. The film is set in America and it was actually very refreshing to revisit the narrative in a UK setting - it made it a lot more relatable. It added more depth to the story as it allowed you to imagine the familiar settings. It reminded me of where my family lives in Aylesbury and we used to holiday in Holkham which is actually referenced by name.”
Something Might Happen (Julie Myerson)
Julie Myerson has strong Suffolk connections and this book in particular captures the mystery and secrets of the county, underlying its beautiful facade. It tells the story of a woman’s murder in a small Suffolk seaside town (most likely Southwold) and the journey of her grieving friend Tess as she attempts to cope with her bereavement and tries to unravel the mystery of her friend’s untimely death. It shows how the death of one person impacts on the lives of all of those around them, causing them to question the lives they have been living up until then and exploring other options. Something Might Happen quickly becomes a study of what will happen when it does.
Louise Baddock of Norfolk says: “It’s one of those books that, from the minute you pick it up, you struggle to put it down again. I read it in two sittings and continue to be haunted by it, not least by the fact that it ends in an unforgettable and not entirely kind way - readers who like things tied up in a neat bow may wish to look away.”
The Rings of Saturn (W G Sebald)
Darren Lorking, of Suffolk says: “In the dog days of 1992, Sebald set off to ‘walk the county of Suffolk’ to ‘dispel the emptiness’ that took hold of him. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald moves from discussion of toxic herrings while looking out from Lowestoft toward Dogger Bank onto a brief stay in Southwold, where he considers the appropriateness of a bureaucrat of the Holocaust as humanity’s representative out in space, in a message sent out on board Voyager II. Sebald, like many autobiographists, sometimes feels like an unreliable narrator, but to travel alongside him on his historical meander is richly rewarding. Even if, like me, you are familiar with some of the sources for his reflections, to read Sebald tackle them with his intellect, emotional intelligence and affecting imagery, is like seeing your holiday photos repainted by Turner. Sebald is haunted by ghosts from history, invoked by the geography around him. These stories that trouble his conscience are recounted with mesmerising prose. Sebald’s writing is so rich as the dark tone of his historic tales are contrasted with the natural beauty he finds in the countryside he wanders through. Sebald’s unremitting melancholia is almost comical, even when he is at his lowest ebb, but I was enchanted by Sebald’s irregular excursion and I often return to walk with him again.”
The Go-Between (L P Hartley)
The Go Between tells of a little boy who goes to stay in Norfolk just before the First World War at the home of a much wealthier family. He gets caught between two lovers - the daughter of the house and a tenant farmer, who, for reasons of class, have to keep their love a secret. The film, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie, was shot at Melton Constable Hall in North Norfolk.
Editor Liz Nice says: “I read the Go-Between at school and have always been haunted by this child whose innocence is stolen with a wrench, rather than through gradual realisation. The past may be ‘another country’ but as Leo found, it can still shape your life forever.”
Samphire Coast (Robert Greenfield)
Reader Pauline Garlick says: “Samphire Coast is a real-life heartfelt roller coaster at odds with an awesome and awe-inspiring renovation of an ancient tumbledown house, national calamities threatening ruination before a dream has hardly begun, dreaded hotel inspectors and errant guests from hell that will have you laughing and gasping at their blatant turgid audacity. Eye-opening anecdotes abound in this amusingly irresistible ‘Red Carpet’ foray into both the lighter and darker recesses of a unique British staycation. “Just sometimes the grass is not always greener on the flipside…” Hence becoming ‘Domestic Gods’ is out of sheer (OCD) necessity as Robert and Michael - with the incongruous arrival of their (lucky mascot) dog, Barnaby, who has the disposition of an urbane sixties hippy - embark on their adventurous new lives in the hotel trade. And who knows, they might be up for an award or two. Robert Greenfield has penned a heady, spellbinding narrative based on his dog-eared diaries that will have you crying out for a sequel and no doubt packing your books and heading for the breathtaking reaches of the North Norfolk coast - one of England’s last remaining wildlife paradises.”
Others novels with East Anglian connections to look out for:
• The Coot Club by Arthur Ransome (Part of the Swallows and Amazons series where the children spend a holiday on the norfolk Broads).
• Devices and Desires by P. D. James (Norfolk coast)
• The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry (Norfolk)
• The Mildenhall Treasure by Roald Dahl (Suffolk)
• Count the Petals of the Moon Daisy by Martin Kirby (Norfolk Broads)
• Utterly Explosive by Pauline Manders (Wattisham, Suffolk)
• Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding (Norfolk)
• A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine - a pen name of Ruth Rendell (Suffolk)
• Riptide by James Humphreys (Norfolk coast)
• The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar (Suffolk)
• Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud (Suffolk coast)
• The Dandelion Years by Erica James (Suffolk)
• The Dig by John Preston (Sutton Hoo, Suffolk)
• Unnatural Causes by P. D. James (Suffolk coast)
• Daughters-inLaw by Joanna Trollope (Suffolk coast)
• Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham (Part of the Campion series, set in Suffolk)
• River of Destiny by Barbara Erskine (River Deben, Suffolk)
• The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (Suffolk)