I am always inspired to write by the places I visit and Faro, on the southern coast of Portugal, was no exception. I had never been there before, though I knew the name from a hundred airport departure boards, as the hub for tourists travelling to the Algarve. My daughter Madeleine, then seventeen, was taking a Portuguese language course in the town. She and I were charmed from the first evening, by its mosaic pavements, by the laid-back atmosphere in the August heat, by the sea and the glimpses of green salt marsh. In the afternoons, we found various ways to get to the beaches and islands – and the first time we went to Praia de Faro, thanks to churning winds offshore, we did find the sea curiously green and furry.
For all the geographical accuracy of my portrayal of Faro, the town in this book is an imaginary version, and all aspects of the story are fiction. However, certain elements, like the great storm of February 1941 and the re-opening of the Café Aliança during the local elections (held, in real life, in 2013), are superficially true.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that the heartbreaking disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann from Praia da Luz in 2007 had no influence on this story, but what set off my narrative was a TV report of renewed investigative efforts to find her several years after the event. A woman who lived locally was being interviewed, and she was angry. “Why all the interest in this one case?” she asked. “There have been others too, you know. What about them?” It was an unkind reaction, I thought, but intriguing. Although I watched out for the next broadcast of the story, and the possibility that this woman’s implication had been followed up, she did not feature again.
I wondered why these questions were not pursued further. Perhaps the reporter hadn’t been able to find out more in the time. Perhaps the implications were too large, too unwieldy. It struck me that sometimes important questions are never answered. Sometimes they are uncomfortable, or not politically expedient. Worst of all, events might be deemed too long ago to matter. An old story: the most damning dismissal a news editor can give. But what are the families who have lost children in this way to do? Of course they will continue in their quests to rescue them, or to know what happened.
Running through this novel are questions about identity. It’s an issue that can be hard enough to answer in normal circumstances. But what happens if a child grows to adulthood and discovers he is not the person he thought he was? A personal history is undermined, shown to be misleading at best, psychologically shattering at worst.
And there are other ways for a person to become someone different. One is by living in a foreign country. This particularly interests me, as I was moved across Europe and Asia so many times as a child, that the simple question, “Where do you come from?” has no simple answer. Each different country left an imprint and memories of home. For Alva, in wartime Lisbon, the moment she changes her perception is when she realises that her husband has no intention of taking her “home” to America.
Crossing borders is a theme that threads through the story. During war, national borders are threatened by invading armies; they must hold to keep the illusion of safety. Historically, Portugal was a nation defined by her navigators and mariners who took to the seas to explore the globe. Present-day Faro has constant movement of planes and trains and cars and boats; the students taking the language course are looking to expand their horizons and move on; Nathan and Joanna are always on the move, on ferry boats and cars and on foot.
In the past, Esta Hartford’s book depicts Alva’s flight into the unknown and how quickly some people can adapt when they have to. The same is true of Nathan. Yet there’s also a sense of unease. Assuming new ways of life, confounding expectations and finding the inner resources to do so are not easy. Borders reflect personal security and psychological boundaries. What one finds within them can often surprise – and perturb – but new countries, new homes, always open a new perspective on the world.
Above all, I hope you enjoy the escape into a fascinating and atmospheric place.
Reading group questions to consider:
• At the start of the novel Nathan seems by far the most self-confident and easy-going character. What does this say about some people’s ability to adapt to any situation? Or is it just bravado?
• What exactly is Joanna running away from? Is it Marc, or does he only represent the cause of her unease?
• Consider Alva’s situation in Lisbon in the 1940s and the choices available to women at that time. How hard would it have been for her to become independent?
• How much of the book is concerned with displays of power over others?
• What is the significance of the sea marshes that shift with time and storms?
• Why does Joanna take the decision she does at the end of the book?