I write this in bed, with a turkey sandwich and a good book. A friend has given me this Christmas that mixed blessing: a copy of her bound proof of her novel, so that if I like it I might provide a pithy comment for the cover of the actual book.
What if I hate it it? Oh god. Why did I agree? Normally I don't - like Stephen Fry, only considerably less often, I decline gracefully, specially if I know the author. So why did did I say yes to this one? I don't even have the security of knowing beforehand that she's a good writer - though she is an experienced and skilled scriptwriter, this is her debut novel.
I'll tell you why: location envy. Location that is, not only in place but in time. (Is there a word for placing in time? There should be. Is there a dictionary where you can look words up by their definition? There should be.) Her book is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1940s.
Ah, the images which swim before my mind! The jumble of wooden buildings, the long low cars, the junks silhouetted against the gunmetal surface of the harbour at dusk, the cocktail dresses, the flat white faces and the scarlet lipstick, the men in uniform, the shadows, and the waft of opium and jasmine . . . .
I have never been to Hong Kong. But I have seen In the Mood for Love (yes I know it was set in the 1960s) and The World of Suzie Wong and Macau and Shanghai Express and Shanghai Cobra and Empire of the Sun and even that terrible one with Madonna in it, so I know all about the imaginary landscapes of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
But I would never have the nerve to approach them as locations. Too alien! The very thing which makes them attractive scares me off. I prefer to have at least one foot in territory which is in some way familiar to me: the time, or the place, or the gender, or the political outlook, or at least something of the who what where why and when.
But I do not know what motivates the heart beneath the turquoise or crimson cheongsam. I cannot understand the dark purposes of the man with the thin moustache, the camellia buttonhole and the handmade silk suit. Look at this woman - what is her story?
Alas, I am not the one to tell you . . .
Yet I have written books set in ancient Greece and future London, imaginary Paris and the Caribbean, in 1918 and in 2046, in Cairo and god knows where else.
Strange how some times and places are possible for us to approach, and some are just not. Thankfully, we have other people to write about them for us.
*The Harbour by Francesca Brill, Bloomsbury, May 2012