Sharon Maas talks to us about her beloved Guyana and shares its history and why Winnie Cox is your perfect guide –
Beautiful Guyana – South America’s Best-Kept Secret!
In 2014, National Geographic named Guyana as one of the best-kept secrets in South America, and no wonder!Most of the country is still covered in unexplored wild forest. Stunning natural wonders begin on the coast, withnewly restored mangroves near the capital city, Georgetown.
The mighty Kaieteur Falls is the highest single drop waterfalls in the world – five times the height of Niagara! — with not a single tourist hotel or restaurantto spoil its natural beauty, andaccessible only by tiny propellor planes.
At the time of The Secret Life of Winnie Cox, all of this was still far in the future. Back then, British Guiana was truly off the beaten track as far as the English colonisers were concerned – across the ocean from Europe, it seemed at the end of the world.
It was all about sugar, and the wealth waiting for intrepid settlers to exploit. They came, they conquered – and created along the coast a paradise of a capital city, Georgetown, known as The Garden CityEventually British Guiana became Guyana, home to the people of many races the British left behind, one people who went on to build their own nation, their own destiny.
With many thanks to Sharon for sharing this with us and for telling us more about why she had to write the book and tell Winnie’s story. Oh you have to read this for the sheer tug of love and Winnie’s struggle to survive her time and place in society. A gripping read and one which did make me shed a tear or two – a history that is not that far away when you think about it.
There’s more to explore on Sharon’s blog and well, you’ll not be disappointed. This is a lady who lives and breathes her locations, their history and how the people who live there live and interact with one another.
1910 South America – A time of racial tension and poverty. A time where forbidden love must remain a secret.
Story in a nutshell
Winnie Cox and her sister Johanna grow up playing in the fields of their father’s sugar cane plantation. Their lives are filled with days playing and living a happy and carefree existence, unaware of the poverty that surrounds them just yards from their home.
But then Winnie falls in love with George, a lowly post-office boy and someone with very different coloured skin to her own…something which in those days, could cause ayoung girl serious problems. She keeps things secret and starts to lead a double life but as she withdraws from her family, she soon discovers a shocking secret about those who she thought she knew.
Where does this leave her and George and what price will she have to pay when all is said and done?
Place and setting
The cover shows the time and place in one striking image, A white girl and a black boy holding hands yet at a distance, in the middle of a field of sugar cane. In British Guyana at that time as in many other places around the world, racism was a powerful force which separated people, split families and loyalties and caused untold misery and isolation.
The plantation is a happy and serene place..at first…but then like a film camera which pans out to show the surrounding area, the atmosphere is not as nice as first imagined for the poverty and racism lies just beyond its borders. The sisters describe themselves as –
‘Sugar Princesses in a magical realm, a sunlit, wind blown, bubble of sweetness. Sugar was our livelihood, sugar determined the seasons, sugar was our world’.
This utopia does not last for long however for this is a sheltered and protected world and the sugar princesses are not aware of theworld outside. Their happy lives it would seem, came at a price. Her father has created this world, and has created a persona for himself that his children never question. His actions and behaviour are not what they first appear.
Outside the plantation
Once the sugar coating comes off the picture, Winnie and her sister realise just what the real world is like, They start to see their island their home through very different eyes. This is a world that they do not understand and events in this world soon start to spiral out of control. This is aworld in which slavery existed and thrived despite the fact that is had been legally abolished in the 1800s, it has survived here for the living conditions of many people living here are poor and wages are low. Tensions are bubbling away under the surface but things are about to take a dangerous turn.
At the heart of this is the girls father and his treatment of his workers.
Bring out the tissues for this is no easy read. A brilliantly moving and raw account of love however and it’s been a while since I had to stay up so late to spend time with these people and Winnie in particular to see how things would work out.
Winnie – how brave and determined this girl was to go against her family and follow her heart? A different time and place yes, but I think we could all learn something from her spirit. The instant attraction between the two is clear and my heart was pounding as if it were me feeling the first flushes of love – the emotions and flutters were very well evoked and the threads of this love affair as they are woven into the full picture each represented an important development in their relationship.
How would I have acted if I was Winnie? This is where the book really got me as I felt I was on the journey with her ever step of the way. To have such a nice life only then to find out the truth behind the sugar sweet world your parents have created must have been such a shock. Set in 1910 it might be, but over 100 years later and it was just as shocking to me.
I did think the diary entries which explain the life of Archie and Ruth, the girl’s parents was particularly interesting as they help give a new insight into the book’s themes. When the two threads of this story mix, the result has quite a force to it, that resonates long after reading it.
I believe this is the first of three books and Sharon Maas I hope it is, as this was a world I was totally immersed in and I need more. There is a lot more to explore and I hope she does, for its messages are powerful and timeless.
The Falkland islands are a raw and rugged landscape – desolate for one women who lost both her children one fateful day. She blames her former best friend and now wants revenge..
Story in a nutshell
Several years after the Falklands War and three after Catrin’s two young sons were killed when her former best friend Rachel made a tragic mistake. Catrin and husband Ben are now divorced and Ben has seemingly moved on but Catrin holds a terrible grief and want for revenge deep inside.
The novel opens as she is making specific plans on how to kill Rachel but she is interrupted by news that there is something bad happening on the island –children are going missing.
People talk of someone, a monster, stalking the island but Catrin has the darkest thoughts stalking her own mind…
Place and setting
The setting of the Falkland islands is one of the harshest and haunting ever evoked in a novel. For the setting is a major character here, shaping the people who live there, their pasts and futures and their view of the world. This world is unlike any other –
The custard of the kelp, the deep smokey blue of the water, the occasional flashes of ruby red as crabs scuttle across the sand
Located off the lower, southeastern tip of Argentina, these islands are captured in every aspect from the rocky and dangerous cliffs, the boat moorings, the sandy coves where the whales beach, the home of the xx penguins, sealsand the array of wildlife that also call it their home. The beaches are the scene of a haunting rescue mission – both for the whales which beach there and the missing boys –
I can hear it cry as it feels itself dying and that is echoed by those around it. Soon the beach is filled with the sound of whales singing their last.
The village of Port Stanley where most of the characters live is vividly evoked as is Port Pleasant, home of the wreck of the Endeavour, a ship involved in the Falklands war, Wireless Ridge, Port Fitzroy and other places synonymous with the Falklands story.
So distant from everywhere that matters, so unimportant on the world stage, that for centuries it escaped just about everybody’s attention. And then it became the discarded bone over which two ego-driven dogs of politics picked a fight.
It’s not only the landscape but the history of the place that becomes part of the story. Callum is an island veteran as well as being a military one and his experience and memories of the war cloud his judgement and his mind. He is in in love with Catrin still but with his PTSD, heloses time during blackouts and flashbacks which are haunting and sad.
With the anniversary of Catrin’s boys approaching, the trap is set for revenge but it is the secrets that keep the island prisoners which will cause the greatestconsequences.
Out at sea, on a remote island, where distance is the greatest enemy…
Bookish musings by Susan
Sharon Bolton has done it again. She writes with such passion and grit that I was immediately drawn into the setting. From the very first ‘scene’ with a woman out at sea, plotting the death of her former best friend, the tension and sense of foreboding never lets up, not even fora minute..
There were so many layers to this novel, not only the story of tragedy and revenge but this was also the story of the Falklands islands, the war and the effect of the war on those who lived and fought through it, the isolation of an island community, the danger of having secrets.. and the way in which death seemed to haunt every scene from the beached whales on the shore to the horror of finding a body or remains of one when searching an ancient ship wreck was just eerie.
Plotting to kill your friend and practicing by shooting the whales or hunting animals was haunting to read. Callum’s experiences of the war and of PTSD were nicely done and really helped show just what war can do to a person, the unseen horrors which linger many years later.
So much to this novel but never once was it over done, packed too tight or with too much history. The Falklands was the perfect backdrop to this story and the atmosphere was evoked with fine skill.
A mystery set against the backdrop of the Chilean 1973 coup which paints an interesting portrait of thepoet Pablo Neruda
Story in a nutshell
Cayetano Brulé, is Cuban but lives in Valparaiso, Chile. At a dinner party one evening he comes across the poet Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, just two years previously. As they talk, Neruda provides him with a challenge – to find a man he has not seen for many many years.
He hands him a pile of Simenon’s Maigret detective novels and tells him that these will help give him all the detective skills he needs. The only important thing is that he finds this man – Neruda is dying of cancer and this is his final wish.
Cayetano finds that this mission takes him away from Chile, to Mexico, Cuba, East Germany, and Bolivia, where he meets a wide range of people and situations. On the trail for one man – Dr. Angel Bracamonte, a researcher on the medicinal properties of native plants, but Neruda does not want to find Bracamonte for his medical skills.There are more personal reasons at stake.
Place and setting
Valparaiso Chile – the home of Pablo Neruda and a key location for watching events of Chilean history unfold. From the days following the opening of the Panama Canal to the coup of Salvador Allende, this novel is a tale of one poet, Chile’s most well known and his search for secrets, during his final days in his beloved homeland.
The backdrop of the history and landscape of Chile run parallel to the story and form a large and informed picture of a country in turmoil.
In the 1970s, Cayetano, his wife, and Neruda watch the consequences of the political landscape play out right in front of their eyes –
The attempted coup came live and direct over the radio, like in the American movies, turning the country into a passive spectator
The media buzz and the fear and excitement of the people show a country on the edge where tension is the order of the day. This is a country going through some troubling times.
With each section of the book named after one of Neruda’s women, each takes the story further and explains a side to the man not seen in the western world. Pablo Neruda has three houses, the most famous of which is La Sebastiana and his poetry dots the literary landscape here giving a unique view of the man sitting in the armchair he names La Nube. A man who loves women as much as words and whose life was filled with both grandeur and meanness.
The trail from Chile to Mexico, Cuba, East Germany, and Bolivia, is one of danger , Chilean history and expat frustration. Revolution is coming and Chile is a country which will feel the full force of this drastic change. With such a thrilling backdrop, the story of Neruda and his mystery search shows a side to Chile never seen before and a poet and his life which takes centre stage.
If you are interested in the poet Neruda and want to learn a little about Chilean history, this is a fine way to do it. A slow plot in parts and one which develops over the whole book but what this leaves you with is a full and immersive impression of Chile, its history, and its people.
I knew a little of Neruda having studied him for A level Spanish and then again at university but never had I seen him like this before. Some of it fictional yes, but this still gives an interesting view of him in his own surroundings.
To me this took centre stage and the story took a back seat but this didn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book. A potted cultural, poetic and political study of Chile for despite the many locations, Chile takes centre stage, but when the history is this fascinating, this is no bad thing.
A very interesting and immersive read
Roberto Ampuero is speaking at the Taylor Institute inOxford @TAYOxfordon May 28th and appearing at the Hay Festival on May 30th. You can follow him on twitter –@robertoampuero