Those of you who have read two or more (or even all) of my novels may have noticed a common theme in relation to the heroines: each is immersed in a new culture.
- In Burning Embers, Coral is returning to Kenya, where she lived in her early childhood, to take over her inheritance, a plantation. Since the age of nine she has lived exclusively in England – Kenya, then, is a strange and exotic new world.
- In The Echoes of Love, Venetia has come to live in Italy to work for her godmother’s architect firm in Venice. She has grown up in England, but is looking for a new start removed from the heartbreak she’s known in London; mysterious Venice, city of mirrors, seems a good fit.
- In Indiscretion, Alexandra has a mixed heritage: her mother was English, her father is Spanish. But she has been estranged from her Spanish roots ever since her mother left her father (and then, subsequently, died), and has built a life in England. When she is invited to Spain, to meet her Spanish family, curiosity drives her to accept. But the Andalucía of 1950 is so very different to all she has known before.
- In Masquerade, Alexandra’s daughter, Luz, is centre stage. Her mother is half-Spanish, her father Spanish; she is rooted in Andalucía. But her travels – she was educated abroad, in England – have made her open to new cultures, and she finds that she is fascinated by the gypsies in the area, their history and culture.
- In Legacy, the conclusion to the Andalucían Nights series, the heroine is of mixed heritage; this time her mother was Spanish and her father is American. Luna has grown up in the US, but a job assignment sends her to Cadiz, where she is surprised to see just how much a pull her Spanish roots have.
- In Aphrodite’s Tears, British archaeologist Oriel travels to the Greek islands to work on an underwater exploration of an ancient wreck. The culture on the little island of Helios is so different to her, so traditional, a world away from England.
- Then we come, finally, to my most recent novel, Concerto. Catriona was born in England, but after the death of her father in her early teens, she moved to France, her mother’s native home. It is in Nice, France, that she meets Umberto, but in order to work with him in the capacity of music therapist, she travels to his home on Lake Como, Italy. There, she finds the beautiful and dramatic setting stirs the musician in her… and the romantic.
As you can see, culture is very important in my novels. I take a young woman and thrust her out of the comfortable, safe – a little staid – life she has always known, and plunge her into a brand-new culture, one that is colourful and vibrant and exhilaratingly exotic, but also, by its nature of being foreign, somewhat overwhelming. Emotions run high as this new environment challenges the heroine at her very core: Who is she? Where does she fit, in this world or the last? Where in the world will she choose to live – in what cultural landscape? Most importantly, what kind of man will she fall for, one from her past or one from this heady new place?
The journey that my heroines take is one with which I identify strongly. I grew up in Egypt, and because the government put my family under a sequestration order, we were not able to travel for many years. As a child that did not concern me too much; Egypt has much to offer to occupy the mind of a little girl with a big imagination. But by the time I was a young woman, with a degree in French Literature from the University of Alexandria, I had a deep-seated need to see the world.
I spent several years travelling in my twenties, predominantly in Europe, and I met my husband at a drinks party in London. Ever since we have lived something of a cosmopolitan life, dividing our time between our homes in Ireland, England and France, and travelling when we can.
For me, experiencing different cultures and their people is as essential a part of life as reading and writing (as Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta said, ‘Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’). That is why all my novels are infused with a passion for travel. But not only travel, of journeying to an end point.
Each of my books is really about the heroine finding a home, wherever that may be, a place in the world where she belongs. For Alexandra, that means settling in Andalucía, with her Spanish family. But the ending, I know from my own life, need not be so simple. Coral, for example, decides to move to France with French-born Rafe and live there in his manor, because the Africa she loves (of the 1970s) is changing; but she will return each year to visit her plantation in Kenya, which will always be a special place because there she and Rafe fell in love. The place matters, of course, but it is what it represents – memories, emotions, connections to people – that is really of importance.
As American writer Henry Miller said, ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.’