I always enjoy my guests’ Writers on Location pieces whether I know the place or not – my love of certain books has actually inspired trips. But today’s Writers on Location piece from Terry Stiastny on Provence is one I’m particularly excited to host. The region holds an almost legendary appeal as a holiday destination, fictional setting and film/TV location and for good reason. It’s the part of France I know and love best, having visited almost annually over the past 20 years (mostly the Lubéron); we love it so much that we’re are hoping to live there at some point. (Yes, I have a Brexit-proof plan.)
Although Terry’s second novel Conflicts of Interest piqued my interest because of where it’s set and because of a cycling angle (I don’t enjoy it but am married to a serious bike nut and this got his seal of approval), it has many other qualities which secured inclusion in my Summer Reads 2017, and you can find out more in my review at the end. But for now, just picture yourself there – even in the UK the weather’s perfect at the moment and Terry will do the rest…
The opening scene of Conflicts of Interest came into my mind before I knew the rest of the story. Lawrence Leith is sitting at his usual spot on the terrace of the cafe in a village in Provence when he hears gunshots. It took me longer to know who he was, what brought him there, and what made him react so violently to the sound of gunfire.
Similar rifle fire startled me in a village near where my parents live in France. As Lawrence discovers, the sound of shots on a peaceful, celebratory Sunday morning is part of a late summer tradition. It’s the fete votive, a weekend that involves boules tournaments, communal meals at trestle tables, rackety covers bands playing late into the evening. The villagers dress up in an approximation of old-fashioned hunters’ costume and process from the church through the streets, carrying the statue of their patron saint, firing off volleys as the parade goes by. The first time I heard the crack of the shots, somewhere out of sight behind the village walls, as I was browsing through the bric-a-brac of the vide-grenier, I jumped too.
So the area that the book is set in is reaI: northern Provence, the area around Vaison-la-Romaine. In wine terms, it’s the Côtes du Rhone. It’s beautiful, of course, a place full of vineyards, sunflowers, fields of lavender. The Mont Ventoux, the mountain legendary to cyclists and known as the Giant of Provence, looms over the landscape.
It was a wealthy place as far back as Roman times and remains of grand Roman villas still exist. Every village has its memorial to the dead of the First World War, with its list of surnames that are still familiar in the area. In some places, you will find the crosses of Lorraine that mark where Resistance fighters fell in the Second World War. The hillside villages are fortified, with ramparts and narrow streets that coil up towards their centres. They were built to repel invaders and provide shelter from the winds, and they’ve seen conflicts from the wars of religion onwards. As Lawrence — a man prone to seeing the worst in everything — observes, ‘everywhere was a war zone once’.
I didn’t want to buy into an entirely romanticised view of the beautiful South; here there are long histories and secrets, family feuds and arguments over land. On the outskirts of the villages there are large houses, many shielded behind walls and hedges. The house that Martin, Lawrence’s friend, has bought and restored is one I’ve imagined, the kind that I would buy if I won the Euromillions. But you see similar houses in varying states of disrepair, often being done up by new owners. It’s somewhere I always feel there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Among the summer visitors from across Europe and the owners of second homes, you occasionally spot a familiar face, one you’ve seen on the British news. It always makes me do a double take, the person you recognise, out of their usual context. We often read about politicians’ holidays and I certainly wonder why you would chose to use a holiday as a time to work and plot and conspire. Isn’t that what most of us are hoping to get away from? And how do all the frictions of a typical holiday with friends play into that? So I began to imagine what goes on beside those swimming pools, behind the high gates.
I could map out my fictional village in my head; it has a cafe, a bakery, a fountain in a central square. I shifted the geography of villages that I knew to suit the one I wanted. But then, an uncanny thing happened. We drove through a village that seemed to combine all those elements, almost exactly in the way I had imagined them. There was a huge plane tree that sheltered cafe tables around the fountain, an archway through ramparts. I had to imagine a bakery that had closed down reopened, but apart from that it was perfect.
Lawrence, though a cynic in many ways, is a romantic Francophile. His view of the country was formed as a student and fixed during his time as a correspondent in Paris. It’s a rose-tinted image, soundtracked by Brel and Brassens chansons; he’d like to see himself as Belmondo in a New Wave film, smoking cigarettes. His view is one I tend towards, particularly as I cast envious glances across at the rediscovered optimism of French politics. But as Lawrence’s more worldly counterpart, Martin, shows us, there are two sides to that. There’s also an aspect to France where ‘everyone knows’ that nepotism or backhanders or affairs exist — you just have to be the right ‘everyone’. So, a beautiful place, a place of warmth and the good life; but with its dark shadows too.
Thanks to Terry for this atmospheric piece which captures the beauty of Provence whilst also getting beneath the surface – I’m also fascinated by what goes on behind those closed shutters and tall hedges!
Starting a new book isn’t something I relish as much as you’d expect, so it’s a great relief when the opening pages fill me with confidence that proves well-founded. With Conflicts of Interest I had the immediate sense that the author knows what she’s doing on every level; as a former political journalist it’s not surprising that she can conjure forth that world with all its power struggles, back-stabbing and machinations, nor that she writes with elegance and clarity, enlivened with flashes of humour and cynicism. Her familiarity with Provence really comes through in an atmospheric, almost filmic portrayal that’s very authentic and recognizable, but it goes beyond the romantic veneer we all know to the darker, more complicated place that is human nature, whoever we are. Stiastny writes convincingly from a male point of view and there is subtlety and depth in her drawing of characters some might be inclined to dismiss as privileged, affluent and possibly not that relatable; whilst I’m strongly in favour of a diverse spectrum being represented in fiction, one of this novel’s strengths lies precisely in its examination of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of those who might seem outwardly unassailable; nobody is beyond reproach and everything has its price. It raises profound questions about what constitutes a rewarding or meaningful life and the tendency of the very fortunate always to want more. Whilst this tense and engaging story will satisfy lovers of the political thriller (which I’m not), it has far wider appeal and the dramatic play-off between ambition and personal loyalties kept me gripped to the very end. If you’re looking for a classy and intelligent read which transports you this summer, there’s a good chance this may be it.
Have you been to Provence? I’m hoping to visit friends in Marseille in the autumn in connection with my new book but this summer I’m getting my fix through TV drama Riviera.
Continuing with the French theme which emerged in my Summer Reads this year, next week I’m really looking forward to Kate Brown’s guest post on Writing about Adolescence in her sexy and poignant historical debut The Women of Versailles. We’ve been promised ‘intensity and longing’ – both of which get my vote every time!