Small town communities have often lent themselves well to fiction. Think of Anne Tyler’s numerous dramas in the US suburbs, Per Peterson’s tales from small Norwegian towns, Jon McGregor’s stories from the UK’s ancient Peak District, and the darkness of Twin Peaks. Not to mention TV’s Tin Star, telling of an unhinged London police chief who has decamped to Little Big Bear in the wilds of Alberta…
As McGregor has said about small rural towns, they offer writers “ a defined network of characters, a knowable landscape, a community of shared knowledge.”
My debut novel, A Degree of Uncertainty is set in the west of Cornwall, in England’s far south west, in a fictional town called Poltowan. Cornwall has the longest coastline in England, a meandering coast path that continues to surprise, countless pretty fishing villages, expansive beaches, hidden coves and wild moorland.
It also has one university town. Falmouth, which I adopted as my hometown 15 years ago, is on Cornwall’s south coast, and its university has exploded over the last 10 years or so, with its student population now topping 5,000. In a town with around 22,000 residents, that is quite a shift in dynamics.
As you can imagine, such a shift has also caused unrest. Many of us feel threatened by change, particularly when our very community, our home, is at risk of disruption, and everything we know starts to look and feel different.
Poltowan is inspired by Falmouth, taking its framework of change — more students, a growing economy, transient neighbourhoods, a younger population —and peopling it with characters who feel variously that the university’s rapid expansion is either progress of ruin.
But A Degree of Uncertainty isn’t about the university per se. It is about the human condition. It is about a small town community that is on shifting sands. And when change occurs people often feel exposed and vulnerable. It makes us defensive. And while some see its growth as a positive evolution, a way of putting a relatively remote community on the map, many feel it heralds an end to everything they know.
The story has two protagonists. Harry Manchester is Poltowan born and bred, a successful businessman who feels a responsibility to fight further expansion of the university and preserve Poltowan for residents and future generations. He will not stand by and see his town taken over by fly-by-night students. He wants to be the people’s hero.
His key adversary is Dawn Goldberg, the ruthlessly ambitious Vice Chancellor of Poltowan University, who is hell bent on making it a defining point in her career. As we learn more about her, we start to understand why she has made this her mission, and why she is determined to achieve her goal regardless of her unpopularity among many in the local community.
It was a story that demanded to be written. A small community harbours all sorts of mysteries. It is a seething mass of secrets, lies and forbidden desires — indeed it is a microcosm of the world — and when people feel imperiled, it brings out the worst in them.
Poltowan is inspired by a real place but is very much a work of fiction, yet like many writers before me, I have found a compelling story on my doorstep.
This post was originally published on the book blogging site of Minimac Reviews in January 2020.