When I started the Literary Sofa I would never have imagined how attached I’d become to the books I feature here; spreading the word, hearing what others think and celebrating their success once they are ‘out there.’ But there’s an unusual backstory to today’s Writers on Location – Laura Powell’s debut novel The Unforgotten is the only title ever to have appeared in two consecutive Sofa selections. I originally included it in Summer Reads 2015 but had to withdraw it when the original publisher went under prior to release. Fortunately it was subsequently acquired by brilliant Scottish independent Freight Books which meant it could take its rightful place on Hot Picks 2016 – and it’s finally out today! I’ve stuck by this book because it’s stayed with me, and the vivid Cornish setting is just one of the reasons. Cornwall is an alluring destination in real life and fiction and I am delighted that Laura is joining me to talk about the beginning – and end – of her love affair with St Ives (my review follows):
A man is struggling up a steep path with a pushchair. The wind is pushing at the tree trunks, sending the sand and deckchairs and seagulls flying. Lampposts are blown down and branches ripped clean from trees. People are killed by this wind all across the UK. But the man clings onto that pushchair handle and manages to wheel the baby to the holiday apartment at the top of the path. Safely indoors he watches the storm pass. He will remember it forever as the day his granddaughter nearly blew away in her pushchair.
The man is my grandfather and the storm is The Great Storm that hit the UK – and the Cornish town of St Ives where we were on holiday at the time – in 1987, when I was one year old. I have no memory of being tucked up in that pushchair and, as an adult, have more of an affinity with how my poor, terrified grandfather must have felt. But I recount it because it was my first of roughly 35 holidays to St Ives and the start of a love affair with the seaside town that would last nearly three decades. Until it ended abruptly two years ago.
In the good days – before it ended – there were family holidays, cricket games on the beach, bodyboarding with my father and grandmother, and the Easter Sunday I stole a family’s chocolate loot when I happened upon their treasure hunt on a moor. (To that family: if you’re reading this, I’m sincerely sorry.) It’s also where I retreated when depression first hit me hard as a student. Even then I took some pleasure in walking on the sand wearing the bobbly grey cardigan I didn’t take off for months, before hiding away again in the tiny bedroom I was renting from a strange old lady who kept lots of Yorkshire Terriers.
For almost 28 years that holiday town was my sanctuary – as long as I could get there, everything would be okay. And if I couldn’t get there, I wrote about being there. My first novel, The Unforgotten, is set in a fictional Cornish fishing village, based loosely on tiny Porthgwidden Beach in St Ives. In one chapter, the illicit lovers take a secret day trip to actual St Ives too. But, like all heady love affairs, it ended – just like mine with St Ives.
The end came in spring 2014. It was the day before my 28th birthday, a few days before Easter. My family and I had gone to St Ives on holiday and my boyfriend was supposed to meet us there – but didn’t turn up. We had argued the day before so I assumed he needed time to cool off. But the next morning, I woke up to find a text message on my phone: He wasn’t coming at all. He wanted to breakup. He would, he said, move out of our London flat before I returned from St Ives.
That day – the day my nine-year relationship ended – was the first time I had been in St Ives and not noticed the sea and the sand. It was the first time I didn’t take even a thin slice of joy from walking along the coastal path to Carbis Bay; or peering into the art galleries; or turning over the signed hardback books in my hand atThe Bookseller; or slotting blocks of clotted cream fudge into my mouth. Instead, St Ives became a prison.
I cried, I panicked, I sobbed on the beach, I sobbed harder in a public toilet cubicle, I hid away in the apartment, I didn’t talk, I couldn’t eat, I was too tired to sit or stand, I was too antsy to sleep. Nothing consoled me. And the pain of being in St Ives, surrounded by memories and happy holidaymakers, made it worse.
It was one of those cold, hard, bright mornings. The train was cancelled and we sat on a bench for what felt like hours, waiting for the next. When we finally boarded I didn’t look out of the window, not even to watch the coast disappear behind me. The trip back to Wales, where I hid away for weeks afterwards, took nine hours. For the first time I was glad to say goodbye to St Ives. I haven’t returned since.
The breakup with my boyfriend was one thing to digest. But my severance from St Ives was a wrench in another way. This Easter, I will return there for the first time since – and my feelings are still mixed: St Ives has bore me a novel, a dozen childhood holidays, two glorious New Year’s Eve celebrations. It cradled me during depression and I love the shape of those shores that I could trace with my finger, even with my eyes closed. But that last visit was the death of something special – of hope and of sanctuary. It went from being the place I believed solved anything to somewhere as real and chilling and lonely during the tough times as any other town.
IN BRIEF: My View of The Unforgotten
Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to re-read The Unforgotten, but the fact that I remember anything much about it a whole year (and close to a hundred books) later speaks for itself. The standard of debut novels these days is astonishingly high with the disappearance of the career path that allowed writers to find their feet before scoring a hit with their third or fourth published book. Even against this new backdrop, The Unforgotten stands out in its accomplishment. The skillful capturing of place and era (the 1950s) lends tremendous atmosphere to a murder mystery that exudes menace and suspense. Fifteen-year-old Betty is an engaging and endearing protagonist and the story has both moral complexity and emotional depth. This book is worth the wait – I think readers will love it. Meanwhile, I’m hoping it will be televised as it really does have all the ingredients of a good drama.
Next week, in the final post before the Easter break, Annemarie Neary will be revealing the wild beauty of the fabulously named Roaringwater Bay off the west coat of Ireland, which inspired the setting for her debut novel Siren.