My novel, Burning Embers, is set in Kenya in 1970. The heroine, Coral, was born in Mombasa, but when her parents separated she moved to London. Now, she is returning to her birthplace to take up her inheritance: mistress of her father’s plantation, Mpingo.
At the heart of Mpingo is her father’s architect-designed house – opulent, magnificent, beautiful. Nearby, a twenty-kilometre stretch of hot, white sands melting into the azure Indian Ocean. And to all sides of the house, gardens and acres of orchards in which grow the rare Mpingo tree.
Mpingo trees are also known as African blackwood trees (or if you prefer the Latin name, Dalbergia melanoxylon). They are beautiful: four to fifteen metres tall with lovely white flowers. The wood is reddish-black, and takes sixty years to mature.
In Swahili, Mpingo means ‘The Tree of Music’. It is so called because the wood is often used to make wind instruments of the highest quality, such as clarinets and oboes. The wood is highly valued, and commands a high price (around £12,000 per cubic meter). But due to exploitation of the trees in Kenya, trees are scarce and concern is growing about their survival. Two organisations now work to conserve the Mpingo tree: Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative and the African Blackwood Conservation Project.
It seems fitting, to me, to situate the love story that evolves between Coral and Rafe amid these trees, the very epitome of the rawness of nature and the price paid for progress in Kenya in 1970. Mpingo reflects the fragility of the lovers, the vulnerability of their relationship in the hot, wild African setting – but also, ultimately, their strength, their hardiness and the beauty at the core of their love.
When I think of Coral and Rafe and Mpingo, into my mind wanders those poignant words from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:
‘Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and an accident. Your Mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree, not two.’