If you ever go on holiday to France, I’m guessing that, like me, you discover bargains in the supermarket and load up your trolley with wine and cheese. It’s easy to be tempted to get out the credit card and overspend. I do the same. But what I didn’t expect, while we were on a family camping holiday many years ago, was to come home having impulse-bought a house! And not even a habitable house. A ruin.
That summer, just after the turn of the millennium, the heat in our coastal resort was stifling and it was hard to stay cool under canvas. We heard about a nearby village, with a chateau and a lakeside beach, shaded by trees, and this drew us inland from the scorching coast.
It was a picturesque spot and had a comfortable, leisurely pace of life but the last thing we expected was to fall in love with the village and put down roots there. As we strolled around the streets, we discovered many of the ancient cottages in the village centre were up for sale. In those days I was our main family breadwinner, with a very stressful corporate job, while my husband ran a small business and fitted it around the needs of our children. Like many families we used to dream of a new life, perhaps escaping to France to run a gîtes (holiday homes) business, but the sums didn’t add up. Yet the prices of these village houses were rock bottom (under £8,000) compared to the UK but too small for a family of four. That’s when we noticed our ‘ruin’, an old tumbledown farm building set in a vast overgrown field, very similar to the property the Willshire family view in the first chapter of Lies Behind the Ruin.
While our children sulked and protested, we impulse-bought it, planning to turn it into a holiday home. To raise the deposit, we acted like problem gamblers, inserting all our credit and bank cards into an ATM to withdraw the ten per cent deposit and handing it over to the estate agent on the spot.
It took us years to convert our ‘ruin’ into a liveable holiday home. Our holidays were spent in a caravan on the muddy building site while renovations slowly progressed. To raise the money for the work, we regularly increased the mortgage on our UK home. Our children spent their holidays painting walls and helping assemble IKEA kitchen units but, once it was done, they got their reward. They could bring their friends on holiday with them, enjoy an outdoor life, roam freely, go surfing and climbing, cycle long distances and take out boats on the river.
I’d often thought of sharing some of these experiences in a novel. As an author, I’m fascinated by family relationships, especially when these are dysfunctional but I also like to delve into the more secretive and twisted side of human nature. There’s no idyllic ‘year in Provence’ experience for my characters. I haven’t set Lies Behind the Ruin in the area of France where our house is, but in Limoges and the surrounding Limousin countryside. I hope readers will recognise the sights, sounds and tastes of France within the fictional world I’ve created.
I began planning Lies Behind the Ruin in late 2015, while on a writers’ retreat at Gladstone’s library in North Wales. At that time, I had no inkling there would be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and that the country would vote to leave. I was halfway through writing the book when the referendum was announced.
Whatever any of us may think of Brexit, and I’m expressing no position here, in the future, young families of limited means probably won’t be able to start a new life in France, as the Willshire family does in Lies Behind the Ruin. The right to move to France, Spain, Germany or elsewhere – to work or start a business – is linked to freedom of movement for EU citizens. Over many years of visiting France, I’ve met people of all social and income backgrounds who have taken advantage of the freedom of movement rules, sometimes after a redundancy, bereavement or other life-changing event; sometimes to start a business or simply because they thought they could give their children a better life. In future, that opportunity may be reserved for the wealthy, or those who secure a job offer from an employer who is prepared to go through the bureaucracy of applying for a work visa for them.
The challenge of writing about contemporary themes is that the world constantly changes. When the Referendum was announced, I wondered if I should abandon Lies Behind the Ruin in case it turned out to be a historical novel before it was even published! But the action in my book takes place between the summer of 2015 and January 2017, so I rewrote some plot lines and et voilà Brexit became yet another challenge for my characters to face.
To find out what happens to the Willshire family when they try to rebuild their lives and renovate their ‘ruin’ in France, you can buy Lies Behind the Ruin from Amazon and all good bookshops.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of The Rule Breaker's Guide to Step Up and Stand Out by saxophonist, poet, speaker and performer, Georgia Varjas. Here is my review.
Like it or loathe it, we need to talk about Brexit. The date has been a movable feast, but could sneak up on us. If that happens, would you be prepared? And what date is it anyway? The original date was 29th March but the government turned back from that cliff edge. The next date on the calendar for leaving (if there’s no deal) is 12th April. If a deal is voted through, the date would be 22nd May and, under that scenario we would be leaving with a deal, so there would be a transition period until 2020 giving us time to get our heads around new arrangements for travellers before they kick in.
My review of the BBC’s dark, gripping thriller Baptiste. Centre stage of this drama was a crowded place with characters jostling for their stories to be heard. But who’s story was this, anyway? Stay with me – I’ll explain.