Today I am welcoming author Sarah Pleydell who is touring to promote the release of her novel, Cologne. This novel is set in 1960’s London, England – not a typical place where you see a novel set. Her guest post today will help provide some insight as to why she chose that setting for this novel.
Why 1960’s London?
Guest Post by Sarah Pleydell, Author of
I originally chose nineteen sixties London as the setting for my novel for sentimental reasons. That was how it felt anyway. After living for twenty years in the United States, I developed an overwhelming nostalgia for England, the country of my birth, a longing for the consolation of native not adoptive soil. I loved the United States but felt in my bones that these were not my lands, mountains, rivers or streams. I think this is true for many expatriates. As I journalled and reflected, I realized that Kew Gardens, the affluent London suburb where I grew up, presented the perfect setting for a novel. It had a beguiling beauty and melancholia than was distinctively British but also fertile soil for more universal themes.
As I wrote, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew became a central motif; it represented (as Christmas does for so many) the idealized childhood that every child yearns for but especially those – and certainly for the two sisters in my book – whose domestic world has been invaded by personal and historical trauma. It was the sanctuary where Caroline and Maggie Whitaker went every afternoon with their au pair, Renate, to play, to fantasize and to escape. They climbed the steps of the tropical hot house imagining themselves big birds flying away to a locale outside time and history. But then had to come back down to earth and endure yet more conflict, discord and they dreaded it.
Returning to the London of my own childhood was challenging, as I found myself reliving not only sensory details but also the sensate experiences they evoked, replete with both kinds of “feeling”: I felt them on my skin and I knew them as emotions. As the book addresses child abuse this was both difficult and cathartic.
The novel covers nine months in London in the Whitaker girls’ lives, so I had to track the changes in setting over four seasons. I derived great joy from recalling the landmarks of London: Victoria Station, the Strand, the neighborhoods and last but not least the London Underground, but I also relived the dreariness, the damp, the pervasive grey of typical London weather.
I realized that not only were these details – the sights, sounds and scents of London – essential for me as the British writer, but they were also the lures that would make this foreign environ tangible to the American reader. In addition, therefore, I added signature tastes of the period – sweet and starchy puddings, kippers, kidneys and tripe. Every sense would come alive, every sense would draw the reader in and every feeling could be tasted.
London, 1960: Renate von Hasselmann, a nineteen-year-old German au pair, arrives at Victoria Station prepared to meet her new charges, Caroline and Maggie Whitaker. Yet she is ill-prepared for their parents: the mother, Helen, knows more about Nazi Germany than Renate does, and the father, Jack, disarms Renate with his quicksilver charm.
In Sarah Pleydell's debut novel, childhood and history collide, blurring the distinctions between victim and victor, ruin and redemption. With delicate humor, Pleydell presents a portrait of a family on the cusp of great social change, while reminding us that the traumas of war revisit the children of the peace.
You can follow along with the rest of the Cologne tour by visiting the tour site.
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