The idea for The Art of Falling came to me when I read a single paragraph in a newspaper about the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the engineering project to stop it leaning any further. It seemed a perfect metaphor for the point where uncertainty and inevitability meet, and the link is made between buildings of flawed design and the imperfect blueprint of family life.
Several strands of the novel have their roots in true stories. There have indeed been instances of British soldiers being honoured in Italian villages for acts of heroism in their youth. Sometimes, when these men were eventually traced, it transpired that they were no longer alive but their relatives gratefully accepted the honour in their memory.
In the novel, Tom Wainwright's family do not know whether he is alive or dead: he has been missing for twenty years.
While researching the real stories of the Eighth Army in Italy during World War II and listening to first-hand accounts from some of the men who were there, what struck me was how extraordinarily modest and accepting of danger these mostly very young men had been. To hear them talk now, they kept going on luck, tea and black humour.
But they paid a price, and passed it on too. This is the core of Tom Wainwright's story. He thinks he has closed the book on his wartime experiences but his subconscious mind will not allow him to forget, only to displace.
So his passionate interest in towers is not really about towers at all but the insistent memory of his first love Giuliana and the place that was to have signified the end of war and the beginning of a real relationship. Even in his daughter's name Isabel are echoes of Pisa and bell, the Leaning Tower being, of course, the bell tower for the cathedral at Pisa. On the night of his near breakdown when the sky is lit by a meteor display, his involuntary thoughts are of Giuseppe and the memory of the way he would talk for hours about the stars and Galileo (even bringing out a huge old book to keep the conversation going) in order to avoid leaving Tom alone with his beautiful daughter.
My idea was to show time in the form of archaeological strata in the same locations. The present exists in the footprints of the past across the burnt and unstable landscapes of Umbria and Tuscany, with hints and reminders in every stone and olive grove of other lives at other times. The structure of the novel moves between the present to past, each building on the other in smaller sections like a pyramid - or tower.
Isabel, wary and wounded now herself, comes to Italy to find the answers to questions left unresolved for twenty years. In finding the courage to do so she finds her own path forward, and love too as she gradually uncovers the truth of Tom's earlier journey.
Through war and peace, love and guilt, in the end it is a novel about regeneration and coming to terms with the past.
How does the structure of the book contribute to the sense of increasing tension?
How does the location of the scenes fit with the interplay between the past and the present, and what effect does this have?
How much of each character's knowledge of another is based on imagination and uncertainty?
Consider the metaphors of building and foundations throughout the novel. How do these reflect love and family?
Book group comments
After I had published the novel myself, word spread to book groups in the London/ Kent area. I was invited to speak at some of the meetings, and here are some of the comments.
Blackheath, February 25th, 2004
"The structure of the book compelled the narrative on, especially the way the sections got shorter towards the end. This really made me want to turn the pages to find out what happened." Maggie
"A really enjoyable book, very moving." Sue
"I believed in all the characters, although the mother seemed to be less well-rounded than the others. Her married life with Tom wasn't given as much attention as other parts of the book." Annie
"No! That's what worked for me - the way that Tom closed down, on himself and her. You really felt that his emotions and the marriage were sterile and lacking." Maggie
"It was very well-researched. Tom's disease, which is very rare, worked as a metaphor for locking up, so that his back resembled the flaws in the tower." Marie-Claire
Sevenoaks, March 3rd, 2004
"One of the best books I have read in the last three years." Sue
"I loved the way it was so well-written there was something in every sentence. That's what I look for in books, and find more and more rarely." Marlene
"It was sad in places, but the effect was uplifting by the end. The quality of the descriptions - like "the vertebrae of the roof tiles" - ensured that it was a lot more than a holiday read." Sue
"We all find something different - I liked the way the Catholic element was handled: the chapel, the festas, the father chaperoning his daughter." Marlene
"The story was beautifully handled: I needed to find out what happened. I particularly liked the way that Tom locked away his wartime experiences, because that's how so many of the men who returned dealt with them. Also the impact on the Italian villages, the people who suffered there and are only now able to open up about what occurred in the war." Helene
Shipbourne, May 20th, 2004
"There was an air of real sadness about Tom, and it was lovely that he did have his time of happiness with Giuliana, it would have been terrible for everything to have gone wrong for him. His shutting down in the middle of the book was right, it showed he was just going through the motions."
"I liked the way that the older Giuliana became such a fantastic friend and surrogate grandmother, and how Isabel could fill in the gaps about Tom with her, that was very satisfying." Melanie
Tonbridge, June 17th 2004
"The details of Italian life and the landscape and houses were all so accurate that there was a great immediacy - I felt I was there. I also really cared about the characters and felt they were real." Janis
"I don't normally like shifts between past and present because it can be so awkward, but this felt natural, never annoying, and carried the story forward compulsively." Helen
"I liked the way Isabel's unease was felt and how it linked with the idea of bad foundations - and how she found her balance by deciding she had reached the point when she had to face the "secret wound" that was holding her back. She had to find the courage to do it, and the truthfulness of this made me empathise with her." Sue
Putney, July 5th 2004
"I kept thinking that the dreadful disease Tom had, the way his spine was turning to stone was like the tower. It was a terrific book, and I also liked the use of tenses very much. The structure is very sophisticated and it worked very well." Joan
"I felt as if I was being transported to Tuscany with Isabel's arrival there: I was straight into the book which is a great plus." Sue
"The research, not only the details of the war, but also the engineering of the tower were fascinating." Anu
This group had an impassioned argument about whether Tom or his wife Patricia was to blame for the failure of the marriage, and which of the two had behaved more unforgivably.
"It was so horribly true to life in the way the marriage was doomed from the start, and the two of them continued together with an emptiness between them for so long. That was very much how people at that time were conditioned to go on." Ellen