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Showcase: The Black Water Code + Reborn, Villanelle Poem

September’s Showcases will be introduced by Georgina Smith, Manager of The Wilbur Smith & Niso Smith Foundation.

We are confidently riding the adventure wave for another week. In the last weeks, we’ve looked at some of the characteristics of an adventure hero: bravery, resourcefulness and courage. We’ve discussed the idea that an adventure must be a journey, and frequently one of discovery, as well as peril.

Yet in the context of fiction, what are the key elements we can identify on the page that make a story an adventure? For me, it’s aspects of the characterisation and plot, a sense of place and the ‘unputdownability’ of the writing itself.

Plot and characterisation are vital for taking the journey forward, for showing the character development and enabling readers to build an emotional connection. Unputdownability, which we’ll return to later in the month, is the drive that makes a book so absorbing you don’t want to do anything but read it. Sense of place is how a person feels and reacts in regard to their environment which must be believable, whatever that environment is.

But how to create a sense of place? Powerful description woven within a storyline is one way. Use of the five senses to build a fully dimensional setting. Clear imagery to transport the reader, ensuring they remain in the novel’s world and are not jolted unwillingly back to their own. After all, where would Jim Hawkins be without the spires of rock, tall pine trees and lush vegetation of Treasure Island? Would McCarthy’s The Road have the same effect without the bleakness of their post-apocalyptic world? Sense of place is vital to the story as a whole.

This week, I am delighted to share an extract and poem which both highlight the benefits of having a rich sense of place. Firstly, I’m pleased to introduce Sumanta Ganguli’s The Black Water Code, shortlisted for the 2021 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, set between the Lake District and Kolkata.

The Black Water Code

His grandfather hated crowds, so he’d built a home off the beaten track. Matt cycled through Bowness and along the main road, with dark blue Windermere on his right, teeming with small boats. It was rare to have a clear day, and people were making the most of the opportunity to spend time on the water. The approach of winter was evident from the white peaks of the mountains behind the lake. Matt pedalled faster to keep himself warm as the chilly wind swept into his face. He slowed down as he passed the Beech Hotel, a fancy spa where many of his friends would spend weekends away from London.

Matt had never had to spend a penny to experience the same tranquillity – he only had to cycle a mile up the road to reach paradise. A small set of marble steps led down to the lawn of his grandfather’s house. He reached the painted wooden fence at the bottom of the steps and had his first glimpse of the house.

Matt had been eleven years old when he had erected the fence, under the watchful eye of his grandfather. The major had an unflappable attitude and an answer to every problem, whether an issue of competition law or how to fix the central heating. He had amazing energy and even at his advanced age could make a difficult trek across the fells look easy.

The sprawling mansion had lots of small roofs and several chimneys. Matt parked his bike next to the wooden porch, put down his backpack, and stretched. ‘Grandpa! Open up, I’m home!’

It was almost a month since his last visit. Matt had spoken to him on the phone the previous Sunday, and everything had been fine. But the previous day, Matt had called at least twenty times; the house phone had continued to ring, while his mobile was switched off.

Matt rang the bell, and then banged on the oak-panelled door, but there was no sign of his grandfather. A worry started to creep into his head. He ran round to the back of the house. A spare key was kept below a flower pot for such situations – only family members and the housekeeper were aware of it. He opened the front door. Ringo would usually rush out and jump up at him, but as he entered the large hall he was met with silence. It took him a moment to adjust to the darkness; the curtains were drawn, and the air was cold. Matt glanced at the stone fireplace. The fire was dead, the logs burned to ash. His grandfather’s rocking chair stood motionless in front of the large bookcase. He looked around, hoping to find Ringo lolling on the sofa or chairs, but there was no sign of him.

He switched on the chandelier, his grandfather’s most-loved possession. The old man religiously cleaned the glazed porcelain lamps every week, a ritual that Matt hated. The flowers in a vase next to the television had wilted. Major Dickson loved flowers, and would always put a fresh bunch from the garden every morning. The deathly silence in the room was punctuated by the ticking of the grandfather clock that stood against the wall.

Matt whistled, hoping that Ringo would come running, but to no avail. His grandfather took the dog for an early morning walk if the weather was good, and it was now well past noon. He quickly checked the kitchen and study, fear choking his throat, but his grandfather was not there. He ran upstairs to check the bedrooms – no one. His grandfather’s room was cold. The bed was neatly made and looked as if no one had slept in it the previous night.

His grandfather had always advised that one should avoid jumping to conclusions if you find yourself in a situation you don’t understand. Matt scanned the room, looking closely for anything out of character. Two small scrawled symbols next to the fireplace caught his eye.

V

The small black marks on the marble were written unevenly, and it took Matt a while to realise that someone must have used ash from the fireplace to write it with a finger.

‘Is someone there?’ Matt heard a female voice call out. He dashed down the stairs and found Martha, the housekeeper, in the hall.

‘Matt! Are you back with the Major?’

‘Where did he go?’

‘He said something about visiting you, but he was so forgetful that he didn’t even lock the front door behind him.’

‘When was that?’

‘Tuesday. He looked upset about something, when I came in the morning. I asked him what it was, but he just waved me away.’

‘When did you last see him?’ he asked. ‘And did you check the lake?’

‘What do you mean?’ Martha suddenly looked shocked. ‘Oh, my God! You mean he didn’t ever arrive with you in London?’

Matt patted her on the arm reassuringly. ‘Did he say anything about visiting the friends he sometimes goes to stay with?’

‘Nothing. I think we should call the police.’

‘I’m sure he’s fine. You go home, and I’ll call you if there’s any news.’

‘No, I want to stay here. Let me cook you some food.’ She strode towards the kitchen, before turning back to look at him. ‘We shouldn’t worry about the Major. He’s a good swimmer. And as for Ringo, dogs don’t drown.’

(c) Sumanta Ganguli, 2021

Taken from early in the novel, this extract of Matt’s arrival at the house in Windemere is the first time we see the house. As Matt looks at his surroundings with fresh eyes, trying to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance, the author makes us privy to Matt’s observations. The marble steps down to the lawn, the isolation from the holidaying crowds and the oak-panelled door, for instance, all add up to create an image of the well-to-do with a reclusive need for privacy. It may not be the most exotic location, but the author has created such a sharp impression we can imagine it clearly.

*****

The second piece I’ve selected to share is the Villanelle poem Reborn by Palak Tewary. The imagery in this poem is gorgeous. The poet takes darkness and light, bliss and melancholy, and interweaves them. In this case, Tewary succeeds in creating a sense of an undefined place, which will surely look different in each reader’s mind.

Reborn

There is something light in this dark
A wave of paradise within a melancholy night
Perchance a misguided star left its mark

There rises a definite slow-burning spark
Winking from the scorching wood of my pyre
There is something light in this dark

A glorious new journey, I now embark
Unbound from every earthly sacrament
Perchance a misguided star left its mark

Waking into a new birth with aplomb
I soar on the faint shimmering air
There is something light in this dark
Perchance a misguided star left its mark

© Palak Tewary, 2021

The use of repetition gives the poem a compelling rhythm and the tone is hopeful, offering us a chance for newness in the dark space around. The heat of the implied fire does wonders for the sense of place and, as readers, we’re left with the feeling of possibility. What an enchanting piece.

*****

If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! Showcase, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to pentoprint@lbbd.gov.uk.

You can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue of Write On!  Issue 10 of Write On! is available now. You can see it here!