It seems an obvious thing to say that the maps we make of the world both reflect and determine how we see the world. We might, on the contrary, think that maps simply show the terrain as it is. But how do we perceive it? Medieval maps like the Mappa Mundi portray a world that has Jerusalem at its centre and everywhere else radiating out from there. I was recently shown a map of the earth as it would be experienced by migrating whales, with the northern and southern oceans at the centre, squeezed in the middle, and the land masses around the edge.
I am prompted to consider the question of how we ‘map’ the world after reading John Burnside’s novel A Summer of Drowning. It is set in northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle, during the few months when the Sun never sets. The ‘white nights’ of this region are evoked in an intense narrative through the eyes of a teenage girl making her own map of the world after completing her schooling. The map she makes is one which details every feature of the landscape and includes things that are not perceived by common observation. This landscape includes the view of it from the perspective of an old man who has always told her stories from the folklore of the area, including that of the ‘Huldra’, an enchantress that can lure young men to a death by drowning. The reality of such stories is continually questioned by the novel’s main character who nevertheless finds herself acting out a drama in which they appear to be all too real.
The writing in the novel sustains an atmospheric tension as it gradually builds a map of the arctic summer, as if the long months between the sunrise and the sunset produce a stasis in which the world seems to reveal things that are not otherwise perceived. John Burnside is a poet as well as a novelist (his most recent collection Black Cat Bone has won both the Forward Prize and the T S Eliot Prize). This shows in the quality of his evocation of the northern summer and the map he shapes of his character’s view of it. I found it far more stimulating and imaginatively original than many prize-listed novels I have read recently.