Book festival review: Rosemary Goring | Courtney Collins | Joanne Harris
FINDING dynamic stories in history was the topic of conversation in the Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square yesterday morning, writes Susan Mansfield.
After Flodden, the first novel by literary journalist Rosemary Goring, conjures up a turbulent time after the catastrophic defeat of the Scots in 1513 in which 10,000 men died in a matter of hours.
Her heroine, Louise Brenier, is a Frenchwoman, stranded in Scotland and trying to find out whether her brother was killed in the battle. She enlists the help of Patrick Paniter, right-hand man of the now deceased King James IV and the master of the guns at Flodden, who is reduced to a shadow of his former self, shattered by what he has seen on the field of combat.
There are unexpected parallels between the Scottish Borders in the 16th century, where the Reivers held sway, and the bush rangers of New South Wales in the 1920s, the world of Courtney Collins’s first novel, The Burial. Her heroine is 26-year-old Jessie Hickman, bush ranger and stunt rider, on the run in the Hunter Valley after killing the man who had kept her captive for years.
Collins describes how she found a photograph of Hickman in an old prison logbook, and hung it above her desk as she wrote. But the breakthrough in her seven-year process came when she realised the story needed to be told not in Jessie’s voice but in that of her dead child.
Many believe that Joanne Harris’s bestselling novel Chocolat is set in the past, though in fact the 1950s setting was the invention of Hollywood for the film adaptation. In her new book, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé she does something she vowed she’d never do: she brings the heroine of Chocolat, Vianne Rocher, back to the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.
Harris takes a risk in returning to a much-loved setting and characters because, in books as in life, nothing is constant except change. Sleepy Lansquenet is on the road to modernity, and now has a small Muslim population. But this conservative little town turned out to be the ideal setting for a book about identity, what is hidden and what is revealed, and how to build bridges between communities.
Harris was drawn to the subject after seeing young Muslim women in her native Yorkshire choosing to cover their faces, and carried out her research in a local Muslim school. However, having decided to bring Vianne back to Lansquenet, Harris’s biggest challenge was persuading her headstrong heroine to make the journey, something she accomplishes in an ingenious twist best left to readers to discover.
Originally published in The Scotsman