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Books: A Sense of Place

Winner of best fiction title in 2019’s East Anglian Book Awards, Penny Hancock’s latest novel I Thought I Knew You is set in Cambridgeshire’s Fens. Here, the author tells Velvet why the landscape proved the perfect setting for a story about secrets, lies and taking sides. . .

When I started to write I Thought I Knew You it was going to be set in Hackney, East London - where my first two children were born. This was a place I knew well as a young mother, and wanted to draw on when writing about parenthood. However as I worked on the novel, I realised the plot really needed a much tighter community as its backdrop.

This setting was staring me in the face of course. Outside my window was the village on the edge of the Fens where I had my third child. There was only one route in and out, and long ‘droves’ (a Fenland word I was soon to learn, that meant road, or lane) on the other side, that led nowhere. The village had everything I needed for my story - a school, a village green, a railway line with a station. And a small village community. Above all this was the notorious uninterrupted expanse of ever-changing sky.

Add a waterway that, on a still day, throws back reflections so clear it’s like looking at the world turned upside down, and you have a pretty rich set of features to draw upon for a novel.

This Fenland landscape became integral to the story: it behaved as a metaphor for the fact one of the main characters, Holly, feels things have been taken from her - the way water is drained from the Fens. But the landscape was also useful in the plot because on any of the droves out of the village Fen-wards, you cannot hide from the person walking towards you. There are no woods, no dingly dells to dive into; not even any bends to duck around or hills to disappear over. The roads are flat and straight and exposed.

Holly and Jules, both mothers, are absolute best friends until Jules’s daughter Saffie makes a devastating allegation about Holly’s teenage son, Saul. After this the mother’s loyalties to their children override everything else, including their friendship. But the landscape forces them to confront one another, like it or not, time and again, pushing them to ask who they know better, their child, each other, or themselves. Meanwhile in their small village, secrets do not remain so for long. Hearsay and judgement abound, affecting the outcome of the allegation and sending ripples through the whole community.

The village in I Thought I Knew You isn’t named. Inevitably some local readers have tried to identify which one it is. There are the features mentioned above, as well as the usual pubs, doctor’s surgery and a sprinkling of shops. But although I drew on many aspects of the real Fenland village I live in, I prefer to leave readers guessing whether the one in the book is based on an identifiable place or is actually an amalgamation of different Fen towns and villages - with a bit of imagination thrown in.

Whatever the truth, I have the East Anglian landscape and the Fens in particular to thank for this book, because it was the answer to the conundrum I battled with for some time - how to give that extra sense of claustrophobia to the story and conflict to the relationships.

Holly feels ambivalent towards the Fens, having moved here from the city, while Jules loves the space it affords her and the comparatively clean air of the countryside. I, like Holly, have felt at times ambivalent toward the flatness of the Fenland landscape, the rawness that is sometimes relentless. But I am also drawn to the fact the Fens repel any attempt to sugarcoat them with ‘chocolate box’ prettiness.

And there is no doubt that where the Fens lack hills and soft contours, woods and bubbling brooks, they make up for this in spades, in atmosphere.

* I Thought I Knew You is out now in paperback, available in most good bookshops and on Amazon and Hive. Visit pennyhancock.com for more.

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