If you were intrigued by the sounds of the last book review, why not find out a little more about who it came from?
Catherine Law penned Map of Stars, and we talked about her reasons for picking WW2 as the setting, as well as which member of the love triangle she would have gone for.
What about WW2 enticed you to set Map of Stars there?
All of my novels (apart from the one I am currently writing) are set during either the First or Second World War. I find it fascinating that these traumatic periods of the 20th century affected a vast amount of everyday people, more than war had ever done before. The conflicts were brought right into our homes and every family must have a story to tell. I wanted to capture the experiences of ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things in times of great sacrifice and danger. But, passed down from parents or grandparents, even the memories of the Second World War are now sadly slipping away.
I feel that war-time brings out the worse and the best in us and in my books, I have explored loyalty, fear, tragedy, separation and, of course, love against this dramatic backdrop. The two major conflicts occurred little over twenty years apart and so all generations of our last century were or are still living with the consequences. For me, this conjures intriguing stories, which still resonate strongly today.
I set Map of Stars in Kent in the countryside around Canterbury and in Thanet, an area I know and love. You can stand on the cliffs at Dover and see France in the haze across a stretch of water that looks, in some lights, entirely swimmable. What must have it been like to live here in plain sight of the enemy who was poised just across the Channel? My characters become first-hand witnesses to the events of war as it occurred on their doorstep: the sailing of the Little Ships for the Dunkirk; the evacuated soldiers returning in their masses to the ports of Ramsgate and Margate (where I live); later that summer, the Battle of Britain raging in the skies overhead; and the random attacks from flying V2 doodlebug bombs towards the end of the war.
During my research I discovered that we had a little-known group of covert guerrillas, called the Auxiliaries – rather like the Dad’s Army with bells on – who were poised in a network of underground bunkers throughout Kent and Sussex to rise up and scupper an enemy invasion. This clandestine organisation of brave men was too remarkable to ignore, and so I took a little artistic licence with them in my book, and the ‘map of stars’ is one of their top-secret documents that goes missing, at great risk to the security of the country.
Do you have any personal connections to WW2?
I was born two decades after the end of WW2 and realised that, as I grew up, twenty years is not such a long time. I remember being aware of it, of these dark days in the past, from a very early age. The idea of ‘The War’ from photographs, books, films and television (how many children think that the past is in black and white!) terrified and intrigued me. I absorbed stories and information naturally, at school and from my parents (children themselves during the war), grandparents, great aunties and great uncles. Our family could boast a bomber navigator, a land girl and a Home Guard sergeant. There was an old air-raid shelter full of weeds and cobwebs at the bottom of our garden (I was born in Harrow in suburban Middlesex) and spooky long tunnel shelters remained in my school playing fields – strictly out of bounds of course! For a little girl with a big imagination, all of this was both fascinating and frightening.
The first spark of inspiration to write about the war must have come to me from an early age when my mother told me about her aunt (great-auntie Ginge) who had been a land girl. Ginge had married a Czech soldier and moved to Prague once peace was declared. But when the Communists took over, she, her husband and young children made their desperate and heroic escape back to England. When I was older, Auntie Ginge shared more of her amazing story with me and it became the seed of my idea for my first novel A Season of Leaves.
How important do you think it was to have Martyn’s death at a central point of the book?
The terrible loss of Eliza’s younger brother Martyn, an RAF pilot, is a pivotal moment in the story of Map of Stars.
When Eliza first encountered her lover Lewis, when he rescued her from the wreckage of her car, she was thoroughly enchanted by him. However, engaged to childhood friend Nicholas and loyal to him and the expectations of both their families, she put Lewis out of her mind and speeded up her wedding plans.
However, Martyn’s death robbed her of hope, faith and resolve. When she turned to Nicholas for comfort, he rejected her and – for reasons that the reader discovers a little later – became cold, distant and withdrawn. Lewis was waiting to console her and in the depths of her crisis she clung to him and gave in to his passion and love. Martyn’s death set off a period of darkness in Eliza’s life: a horrible cycle of guilt, grief and duplicity which took her many years to resolve.
Ok, personally, team Lewis or team Nicholas?
What a difficult question to answer – it is like being made to choose a favourite child! I will have to go with team Lewis as he is my hero. He is flawed (guilty of having an affair with Eliza, a married woman), but he is also a gentleman, and he is clever and brave. He sacrifices his own happiness in the line of duty and this side of him is not readily revealed or understood until the end of the book.
But, in praise of team Nicholas – at first he seems to be a weak, selfish and ineffectual man, but there are reasons for this and I hope that the reader begins to feel compassion for him and understand the burden of his dark secret. He is a good father to Stella and to some extent a good husband, keeping Eliza’s own secret for her. And I especially enjoy the freedom that he discovers at the end.
Describe Map of Stars in five words.
Secrets, lies, love, loyalty, forgiveness
Map of Stars, published by Zaffre Bonnier Publishing, is available now priced at £7.99