I GREW UP on an island in the Baltic Sea. It was flat and windswept, and I don't seem to remember it ever being summer. I left when I was twelve. Most of my memories are of the snow and the cold. We lived close to the sea. It was turbulent, grey and dangerous.
Last year I went back to my island with my adult daughter and two friends. It was winter and there had been a heavy snowfall the night before, when we set out from Copenhagen. I had come to know my friends while travelling in India, and as we drove south through the snow-covered landscape the world seemed small. We talked about the old hostel in Jaipur, northern India, where we had met, and about holy cows, piles of rubbish and aggressive snake charmers. But we fell silent when we reached the island.
The landscape changed. It became flat and barren. The roads were empty. We passed run-down farms, unkempt yards and one ploughed field after another.
Polish immigrants settled on the island after World War II. The soil is good for growing sugar beets. There used to be a shipyard providing work for most of the island's population, but it is closed now. Many houses are boarded up and empty.
The roads looked vaguely familiar. But I was unprepared when we rounded a corner and there, in the distance, lay my childhood farm and, behind it, the sea. We stopped, switching the engine off, and I pointed across the fields. Fine snow moved silently over the plough furrows. My daughter, still suntanned from the Australian summer, sat in the back. She was quiet, and I could sense she was studying the stark landscape.
As we continued down the narrow road I felt a strong urge to get out of the car. I wanted to discover again the air, the stillness, the scattered trees all bent in the same direction, reaching for the ocean with their strange twisted arms. I wanted to stand in the silence of the road and let the cold settle under my coat, in my eyes and ears. I wanted to say, 'I am back, I am here. I have missed you. Oh, how I have missed you.'
But instead, in every break in the conversation, in every pause, I registered another familiar part of the landscape: the bends in the road; the bare, wilted hedges planted between fields to shield the crop against wind. I used to love those fields.
The car got stuck in a pile of snow as we reached the farm and the owners came out to see what was happening. I remembered how rare it was as a child to see anything on the road, apart from the yellow postal truck. A car meant one of two things: someone was lost, or they were coming to see us. Neither happened very often.
The farm's owners helped us free the car, and invited us inside. The house had been transformed. The tiny room next to the stables where I used to sleep was gone. The old woodstove in the centre of the house was no longer there, and internal walls had been built, changing the shape of every space.
Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space of the childhood home. He describes the cellar, the attic and the garret, the doorknobs, nooks and corners, as spaces to which we are bound. My childhood memories of home, however, are not the ideal, and wandering with my friends and daughter from one unrecognisable room to the next merely managed to disorient me. It was only when I realised that the hayloft had been converted into a second storey that I felt a pang of loss.
The hayloft used to be a palace, a castle, a magical place. A wooden ladder reached up from the stable floor. In the loft everything was muted and dark. There was a feeling of holiness, a feeling that made us whisper in awe. Bale after bale of wonderful-smelling hay was stacked from floor to the ceiling. And my brother and I made pathways between the bales, secret caves, hiding spots. The cats had their kittens in the loft and we would find them, alerted by their tinny whining. Each day we would climb the ladder, only to descend later in silent agreement: itchy bodies and scratched arms were a small price to pay for playing in the loft.
Outside the stables was the flat and desolate landscape. I don't think my brother loved it as much as I did, but I never asked him. I confessed my sorrows to the windswept trees, and I whispered to the beauty of the frost that covered the peaks of the brown ploughed soil. I knew the sky, and – like the character of Minou's Mama in my recently published novel, The Vanishing Act (Text, 2011) – I knew at a glance when it was going to snow.
It is easy, in retrospect, to romanticise an arduous journey through a stark landscape from the sheer relief of having survived. But I was aware then, as I am now, that even though this landscape was intimate to me it was also impenetrable. It wasn't my friend, it didn't comfort me or hold me, it didn't care for me. But it did offer a place where I could speak and exist freely.
When I was eight I had a box made of cardboard. I wanted to create a world inside it, the same landscape I experienced early in the mornings: the wet moss, the taste of sea and the mist between the trees. I longed to have it all contained in one little box. I wanted to find it with a lift of the lid, again and again. I furiously collected leaves, moss, branches, pebbles. I didn't know it was impossible to contain that landscape. And I didn't know it was going to be a disappointment so deep that my stomach still turns when I remember the box: leaves pathetically arranged; bits and pieces, ugly and dead. I wondered then how the landscape I knew could be evoked. Was it even possible?
William Blake once overheard a discussion about the inconceivable distance between planets, and the time it takes for light to travel to earth. Blake shouted ''Tis false! I was walking down a lane the other day, and at the end of it I touched the sky with my stick.'
Like Blake, I wanted to touch in my novel what cannot be laid bare in a description or kept in a box. I remember my childhood landscape through the character of the dead boy, who brings out secrets and longings in the people around him. I remember it through the descriptions of my fictional island: the cold, the snow, the ocean and the bales of hay. Through my writings my childhood landscape is not revealed, recounted or pinned down. Instead it runs ahead of me, constantly taking on new shapes as I write.