In Burning Embers twenty-five-year old Coral returns home to her birthplace, a Kenyan plantation, where she is reunited with Aluna, her old yaha – her nanny from childhood. It’s a poignant reunion for the two, who were torn apart many years ago when Coral’s parents divorced. Coral allows Aluna to mother her, even imploring her to tell her a story as she falls asleep, safe and cosseted as a child.
But their relationship is not straightforward. Aluna is much older now, and in grieving for Coral’s father, whom she loved, she has become twisted and has fallen deep into superstition and witchlore. She is highly protective of Coral, and unwilling to believe the best of the man with whom she is falling in love, Rafe. Coral, on the other hand, is grieving herself, and is vulnerable and alone, which means she is grateful for Aluna’s affection and care. But a grown woman now, she is not prepared to allow Aluna’s opinions to sway her own, and she finds her yaha’s meddling irritating. By the end of the book, however, the two have found peace, and Coral and Rafe’s happiness mellows her so that she is glad that her little malaika has found a happy-ever-after.
Such a protective, motherly nanny seems the matter of fantasy, not reality – of Mary Poppins or governess Jane Eyre. But, in fact, Aluna’s character is based on fact, not fiction.
When I was growing up, I had a governess myself. My sister and I called her Zula, adapted for the ‘selle’ of ‘Maidemoiselle’ because that was all my young sister could at first pronounce.
Zula was a wonderful woman – kind, caring, giving, expressive, creative. And with so much Latin blood pumping through her veins from her French and Italian roots, she was an extremely passionate woman. She would tell us wonderful stories of her life before looking after us, full of love and loss and high drama. My mother would say that such tales were make believe, that she fabricated stories of her past. I didn’t care even if they were – she took us to such magical, romantic places with her tales – both those of her life, and those she would invent to please my sister and I.
Indeed, we reached the point where no other form of discipline was required to keep us in line than Zula threatening not to finish a story. She would stop mid-tale and tell us to wash our hands for dinner or tidy our bedrooms, and we would do just as were told, so desperate were we to find out what happened next.
Then Zula made a deal with me. For every story she told me, I had to relate one of my own. And so was born a lifetime of dreaming up stories, and so was born Burning Embers and the character of a much-loved nanny. Though I rather think, had Zula been in Aluna’s shoes, she’d have been less cautious and more excited about the romance unfolding before her! And my goodness she’d have cried at the wedding…