If a writer sets a novel in a world without any familiar reference points, it might be described as surreal, or placed in the fantasy or alternative reality genre – Paul Auster’s In The Country of Last Things comes to mind. Other times, familiar places are given new names and also possibly amalgamated, while within that reality other larger places remain the same (Australia is still Australia). In Tim Winton’s work, is Angelus simply Albany renamed? One could go mad trying to tie down the suburb of Cloudstreet; it’s West Leederville, but it’s also Subiaco, and other western suburbs. And this is surely the point: renaming a familiar place loosens the constraints on the novelist. The novelist can construct their own place like building Lego, taking bits which go together. The railway line can be closer to the river. In the same way that time is manipulated, memories from different stages brought together, place can be manipulated.
So if I’m aware of this, why does my mind keep trying to crack the ‘code’ of Calatta, the beach setting in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers (1937)? Perhaps it’s because of Ric Throssell’s warning in the introduction:
The setting for the story was the familiar seaside scene of the Western Australian beaches. Anyone could tell that. ‘Calatta’ was Rockingham, or Cottesloe, or was it Point Peron? Or the Basin at Rottnest, perhaps? In Prichard’s lovingly evocative language the places and people seemed real. And yet, as in all works of fiction, reality and imagination are woven together in Intimate Strangers in new lives, new people, new events that exist only in the mind of their creator and the words in which their existence is evoked.
Throssell uses Calatta as a good example of how direct parallels can’t be drawn between fiction and life, a point which becomes important, biographically, when it comes to reading the novel as a portrait of Prichard’s marriage. Yet like the kid in class who ignores the point and goes off on their own tangent, I can’t help trying to put Calatta on the map as I read. In Chapter Four, the surf clubs compete, with Calatta going up against North Cottesloe, Cottesloe, City Beach and South Beach; later, it’s mentioned that Calatta’s ‘a few miles’ from Fremantle. It has holiday shacks, and a limestone main-street; cliffs; a view of an island. Just like Throssell warned, Calatta’s an amalgam and the point is to enter fully the novel’s world which is like my world, but also not like it – especially separated by eighty years.
In thinking through the function of ‘amalgam places’ for this post, I have a new appreciation of them. But James Joyce claimed Dublin could be rebuilt from his descriptions of it in Ulysses, and I’m quite fond of writers being very specific in evoking a place, using real names – if it’s done well. (I confused one reader in my current novel-in-progress is by writing about an alternative Perth where a ten story library sits on Heirisson Island, but still calling it ‘Perth’, and indeed calling everything by its real name. This objection is connected to all of this.) What do you think? Do you have a preference for fictionalised, amalgam places or not?