Flatlands can be places of unnerving paradox. There, you can’t be taken by surprise, but nor can you hide; any feeling of liberation tends to be constrained by a barb of danger; and while you may be granted a glimpse of the infinite, you’re also made to feel hyper-aware of your own body. For Noreen Masud, a lecturer in 20th-century literature at the University of Bristol, “it’s as though the landscape is sending us a message that we’re unable to decipher.” In “A Flat Place,” she travels to five landscapes in England and Scotland in an effort to interpret them: the Cambridgeshire fens, the shingle promontory of Orford Ness, the tidal flats of Morecambe Bay, the Town Moor in Newcastle and the islands of Orkney. She also seeks to interpret their appeal, for while this is a kind of quest narrative, that quest’s true objective might be to answer the question: What am I looking for? And though the journeys together have something of the quality of a pilgrimage to a healing spring, Masud is too skeptical to anticipate any sort of nature cure.
“What does it feel like?” she asks her therapist. “To feel connected to another person?” The wellspring of Masud’s sense of disconnection (diagnosed as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, though she uses the term warily) is a childhood spent in near-total separation from society, enforced by a father who finally disowned her when she was 13. With her sisters and mother, she fled her birthplace, Pakistan, for her mother’s birthplace, Scotland. The abiding image of her childhood, and of “A Flat Place,” is the plains of Lahore, seen glancingly through a car window. “The fields were perfectly, shimmeringly flat. No people crossed them.” Borrowing from Virginia Woolf, Masud comes to consider that impression of a deserted, featureless land the “base that life stands upon.”
In other words, “flat landscapes … had always given meaning to a world that made no sense to me.” The British Isles, however, whose very substrate she knows to be cemented with the blood of racial injustice, are too haunted to grant her easy verities or much consolation. Surveying the old military test zone of Orford Ness, she discovers a sea wall built during the First World War by a Chinese labor force largely written out of history. As recently as 1929, Town Moor hosted an exhibition that included an “‘African village’ — a human zoo inhabited by a hundred Senegalese people.” In 2004, Morecambe Bay was the site where at least 21 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned, victims of human trafficking and of gang masters who did not understand, or disregarded, the bay’s notorious tides.
It is not Pakistan, then, that is “the place of trauma, of lack, of pain.” And yet the unhappiness of Masud’s childhood makes nostalgia impossible. “The flat place,” she writes, “is what happens when one’s reality is at odds with that of everyone else.” It is also a realm familiar to every exile: neither home nor away, but a “nowhere” in between. By the end of this sorrowful, tender, sometimes beautiful book, it becomes apparent that it is not those mythic Lahore fields that Masud has been trying to find, but rather a terrestrial analogue for her own sense of desolation. Quests of this sort, as she understands, are bound to be fruitless, but in an unexpected coda we are allowed to hope that the “flat place” is not, after all, limitless.
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