Reading Cornwall

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Written by Jane Carter

It’s holiday reading time, so we asked a Cornish blogger to look at some of her favourite books set in Cornwall – and it also felt apt, given the recent publication of books set in Cornwall like Helen Dunmore’s The Lie and John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery. Over to Jane!

A 1786 map of Cornwall

I love reading books about Cornwall but, because I was born in Cornwall, because I live in Cornwall, it will jar if something isn’t quite right.

So let me recommend some books set in Cornwall that do get it right. Not the obvious books and authors that you’re probably thinking about already, but some less well-known books, and some books that you might have forgotten.

At the time of writing, all of these are in print and would make lovely summer reading:

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

I knew that I was in safe hands from the start as Susanna Kearsley wrote of crossing the Tamar Bridge, leaving Devon and coming into Cornwall. Here was an author who understood. The story that follows – a lovely story of a house, a garden, history, time travel, and above all romance – is magical. This really is a book to get lost in.

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins crossed the Tamar by boat in 1850, a few years before the bridge was built, and he and his friend, the artist Henry Brandling, set out on a 214 mile walking tour. They went down the south coast and back up the north coast, and the author’s account of their travels is as readable as any of his novels. He writes about people, places, myths and much more with such appreciation and understanding, and he’ll make you want to follow in his footsteps.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley

This is the story of twelve year-old Gussie, who has a head full of films and books, who is fascinated by nature and the world around her home in St Ives. The story is bittersweet because she is ill, waiting and hoping for a heart transplant. But Gussie is so very alive, the world around her is so very lovely, and that makes her story wonderfully life-affirming.

Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier

This is a story of love, secrets, and their consequences, with wonderful gothic overtones, set in an elegant manor house, on the wild Cornish coast; a house that captures the hearts and souls of those who live there. Angela Du Maurier’s writing lacks the subtlety, the nuances, that made her little sister’s books so special, but she loved Cornwall and her storytelling has such passion, such conviction that you have to keep turning the pages ….

From East End to Land’s End by Susan Sonyinka

A party of children from London’s East End, some of whom had never seen the sea before, were evacuated in June 1940 to a Cornish fishing village, and billeted with people who knew next to nothing about Judaism. This is an extraordinary human story, told in a book full of pictures and first person accounts; a book that is both serious and eminently readable.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

This is a beautifully written account of a one week at cliff-top hotel on the north coast of Cornwall, not long after the war. Margaret Kennedy brings together a diverse band of characters – hoteliers, visitors, locals – all vividly drawn, and she steers them through some wonderful scenes. The dramatic ending that will make you catch your breath, even though it is foreshadowed at the very start of the story.

Snapped in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho

Snapped in Cornwall is a simple traditional mystery, easy to read, with lovely settings, engaging characters, and a leading lady whose story you’ll want to follow through the rest of the books in the series.  Rose is a widow, a photographer and would-be artist, living in Newlyn, and I could so easily believe that I could pass her in the street there, and that I could read about the stories told in Janie Bolitho’s books in the local paper.

China Court by Rumer Godden

China Court is a little different to most fictional Cornish houses. It’s a granite house, a family home, set inland in china clay country. Rumer Godden tells the story of many generations of the same family, moving backwards and forwards in time and painting wonderful pictures with words.

The First Wife by Emily Barr

This is a very readable story of a girl from a Cornish village who loses her home when her grandparents die, moves to town – Falmouth – and finds herself caught up in a story with elements of chick lit, strands of a psychological thriller, and echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s wonderful fun!

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

I think this may be the loveliest childhood memoir I have ever read. Emma Smith writes of growing up by the sea in Newquay between the wars in lovely clear prose, balancing the perspective of her childhood with her greater wisdom as an adult writer quite beautifully.

The Fish Store by Lindsey Bareham

Food writer Lindsey Bareham spent childhood holidays with her family in an old house called ‘The Fish Store’ in the fishing village of Mousehole. Years later she began to write down memories and recipes for family and friends, and eventually those writings and some lovely photographs were brought together to make this book.

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

This is the best kind of blockbuster: a family saga, spanning half a century, telling of one family and Penmarric, their grand home in the far west of Cornwall, in five distinctive voices. The house, its inhabitants, the world around them come to life in a dramatic, compelling story.

A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena

The story of the love that grew between a consumptive writer and a free-spirited Cornish girl, and it is by turns comic and light-hearted and tragic. It was lovely to watch and listen, to be drawn completely and utterly into their world, to want to be out on Dartmoor and to travel into Cornwall, as they did more than a century ago.

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Diving Belles holds twelve short stories. Contemporary stories that are somehow timeless. Because they are suffused with the spirit of Cornwall, and because Lucy Wood so clearly understands and because she is able to catch the intangible magic in lovely, lovely words.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

This is such a simple story, the story of a man and a girl who run away from their troubles in the north-east and create a new home, in an old army hut by the water near Fowey, but lovely writing, well-chosen details and a quietly engaging, honest, narrative voice make the story sing. Love in the Sun is inspired by the author’s own story, and if I had to recommend just one lesser-known book in Cornwall this would be it.

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Jane Carter lives on the Cornish coast, with one small brown dog and a ridiculous number of books. She blogs at Beyond Eden Rock.