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Foreign-set fiction – the best travel companion

Terminal City book coverLast month I visited New York – not for the first (and, hopefully, not for the last) time. It is a city I love. I took with me a copy of Terminal City – a new novel by Linda Fairstein. It is set in and around, and below, Grand Central Station. I have passed through Grand Central on many occasions, but never have never really given it too much thought other than to admire the splendid architecture.

But reading the book in New York gave me a whole new perspective. The story is great, but Grand Central – and its history – is actually the hero of the book. Ms Fairstein had clearly done a lot of detailed research… Did you know that at the end of the 19th Century, when the New York gentry lived at the southern tip of Manhattan, people travelled north by horse drawn carriage to 42nd Street to catch trains from the newly built Grand Central Station – coal powered steam trains that weren’t allowed any further south because of the fear that sparks from their burning coals might set the smart parts of Manhattan alight…? Or that 4th Avenue was renamed Park Avenue once the open tracks north of Grand Central were electrified in 1913 and buried, only to surface again at 125th Street? And the covering over of the tracks released an enormous amount of prime real estate onto the market – creating the rich Mid Town of today? The avenue was one of the few two way traffic ones in New York, with plants in the central reservation above the buried tracks. I spent literally hours walking round the Station and its environs retracing the steps of the book…

Grand Central was built and owned by the Vanderbilt family, and opened in 1871 – in the middle of a very poor area surrounded by slums and slaughter houses. The area changed, and the station was totally redesigned and rebuilt between 1903 and 1913 – as ‘Terminal City’. A series of underground passages led passengers from the trains to the Yale Club and buildings such as the Biltmore, Commodore (now the Grand Hyatt), and Roosevelt Hotels. The Waldorf Astoria – opened in 1931 on the site of the Biltmore, has its own private rail track into Grand Central… a track used by Presidents and heads of government.

It is no exaggeration to say that there is a whole city beneath Grand Central – right down 10 floors to the M42 ‘not on any blueprint’ generating room that converts AC electricity into DC to power the trains. ‘Not on any blueprint’ or plan because of the fear of terrorist attack closing down the whole East Coast railroad system – years before 9/11 and recent world events. The subterranean city spreads out across many blocks both north and south of 42nd Street – and is most bizarrely ‘home’ to many otherwise homeless people known as ‘moles’ who co-exist with the other inhabitants – large rats (‘track rabbits’). They have their own ‘mayor’ and governance. A parallel world that is entered and left through gratings connecting it to the world above…

On this trip I experienced a side of New York that I literally did not know existed – a side of the city that was brought to me through the power of fiction.

The same happened on a weekend trip to Amsterdam earlier this year. We took with us The House of Dolls by David Hewson.

In an extract from David Hewson’s website, he says:

‘The world is a vital component, one I need to establish before anything else. There’s a simple rule I apply to all my work; is it transferable? In other words could I take the same characters and narrative and move them from, say, Rome to Vienna. If the answer’s yes then something’s wrong.

A story world has to embrace everything in the book. Both the characters and the events they encounter need to be tied to the location where they take place. For that reason I choose my canvas as carefully as I do my plots’

160914houseofdollsAmsterdam is key to the story of The House of Dolls – and we learn a great deal about the city and its people from reading the book. While he was researching the book, Hewson spent time in Jordaan, a rundown formerly working class district, where Peter Vos (a detective, and the key character of the drama) lives on a dilapidated houseboat with his fox terrier, Sam, for company. [Sam, incidentally, breaks a rule of Hewson’s – never model a character on a real ‘person’ – Sam is modelled on his own fox terrier, Eddie… to whom the books is dedicated]. He also explored the rest of the city in some depth. In the edition we had with us there is a map of Amsterdam with the key locations that feature in the book marked on it – and on Hewson’s website there is a much larger interactive map to play with. You really get the impression that he wants you to be part of the place.

Similarly when we visited Venice for a long weekend a couple of years ago, we took with us The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. The (true) story of the fire at the Fenice Opera House, which occurred on the evening of Monday, 29th January 1996. It is at the heart of this story of post fire Venice. Was it arson, was it negligence? John Berendt trawls the evidence, meets some wonderful people as he trails the calli, campi and canali of Venice, and traces bits of history with myth and memory interwoven into the fabric of his story – this is like a tapas (if you’ll pardon the Spanish influence) of wonderful stories.

The City of Falling AngelsWe meet the Curtis family, 4th generation Americans who came from Boston; the Volpe family who have been inextricably linked with the development of the city in more recent times. Berendt goes on to tell the story of the two electricians finally charged with setting the fire at the Fenice, Carella and Marchetti; and how Gianni Agnelli (head of the Fiat Empire) tendered for the rebuilding of the Fenice but didn’t get the work.

Eight years of rebuilding, shenanigans at every twist and turn, and the first opening concert after the rebuilding was held on the day that Saddam Hussein was discovered, 14th December 2003….

The book is populated with marvellous facts about Venice…. the air in the city is clean because Venice outlawed the burning of heating oil in 1973 and switched to methane gas which burns clean (and, of course, there are no cars)…Northern Italy has the highest concentration of businesses in the world…Venice has 443 bridges…during the last two centuries the city was poor, therefore had no funds to invest in ugly new development, leaving Venice untouched and handed down to us in an unadulterated state (though Napoleon did his share of plundering, many of the items ending up the Louvre)…and so much more….

It was a brilliant way to get to grips with the city. The book really brought it to life for us.

Bangkok Tattoo book cover

Our love of books set in location – you can get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional guidebook – started seven years ago now in Bangkok. We were staying at the BelAire Princess Hotel just off Sukhumvit Road. I was sitting by the rooftop pool reading a book called Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett that I had picked up at the airport on the way out. A thriller that absolutely came to life when I discovered that much of the action was taking place in Soi 5, a short way beneath us. And the book was great for creating the atmosphere of the city – somehow seedy, with street food and strange (to us) customs. A city we descended into by lift and then explored, memories of the book still fresh. It was a great experience as we followed the story…

Books set in location really do add to the travel experience. From historical novels (where the footsteps of the past can be retraced) through to modern masterpieces that evoke what is magical, and real about a place. Over the past seven years we have visited many a city and many a country – and every time we have taken a work of fiction with us. We have supplemented the detail of the conventional guidebook – and benefitted enormously from the depth and passion of some of the writers that have accompanied us. We have learnt a lot that we would not otherwise have learnt, and truly experienced many a place through the unique eyes of an author.

Tony Geary is co-founder of the TripFiction – a website that seeks to match works of fiction with the locations in which they are set.

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