The structure of the novel, in a trio of novellas, is integral to the story. The three distinct parts each seem to be telling a separate story. Romance, intrigue, and mystery and eventually coalesce into a tale about the duplicities, sacrifices, heroics, and secrets of war - and the ghosts that linger in its aftermath.
What links these stories is the theme of communication, or the lack of it: coded wireless messages; torch signals; lighthouse beams; braille; the human senses, especially that of smell; information withheld; misinformation; differences in language; symbols; all play their part. The novel’s structure mirrors the oblique connections between underground cells during wartime, where security is paramount and the best defence is limited knowledge of the activities of others in the organization. Different stories overlap but none are known to all those involved. It is only afterwards, sometimes many years later, that connections can be made.
There are many true stories within the pages of The Sea Garden, though all are filtered through the distorting mirror of fiction. The area of Provence I know well was a stronghold of the French Resistance during the Second World War. It’s the kind of country place where people are proud of their past and stories are passed down in everyday conversation. The Resistance years are spoken about – to British, American and Canadian visitors in particular – with considerable pride and a sense of shared history.
I have long been intrigued by the stories of clandestine wartime airdrops of arms and agents by the RAF, and the secret landings of planes while France was under Nazi Occupation. When I began research into these air operations, I discovered a poignant detail in the memoir We Landed by Moonlight written by one of the RAF’s finest Special Operations pilots, Group Captain Hugh Verity. On the makeshift landing strip known as “Spitfire”, close to the great lavender fields of Sault, a Dakota was flown in carrying key French personnel just before the Allied landings on the south coast in August 1944. The plan was to land, drop the passengers and collect a group of escaping American airmen who had been on the run.
But the Dakota was too heavy, and the makeshift runway too short. On the run-up to take-off, the undercarriage snagged on a wide strip of lavender that had been planted to disguise the length of the field from the ever-vigilant occupying authorities. Before another attempt could be made, some of the US airmen had to disembark. Promises were made to come back for them the following night, but it was too late. The botched operation had taken too long, the Nazis and their Vichy enforcers, the Milice, were now aware of it and took brutal reprisals. The next night, the Dakota returned but there was no Resistance reception team waiting to signal it down.
That strip of lavender was the spark behind The Lavender Field, the first section to be written. It features the blind perfume maker Marthe Lincel, who appears in The Lantern, and tells the story of what really happened to her during the war when she began her apprenticeship with the perfume factory in Manosque.
The Resistance figure known as “the Poet” in this section is loosely based on the French surrealist René Char. In his secret wartime life, Char was a highly respected and successful Resistance leader, code-named Alexandre, based in the village of Céreste at the eastern end of the Luberon valley. The trustworthy local policeman Cabot in the story did exist in real life; he was instrumental in recovering some jewels which had been stolen on their way to being sold to buy food supplies, not only for Char and his host family, but for the army of resistants hiding out in the hills for whom “Capitaine Alexandre” was responsible.
In A Shadow Life, another young woman experiences a different aspect of the war. In bomb-blasted, monochrome London, Iris Nightingale works for the SOE, Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, formed to sabotage and disrupt behind the lines in Occupied France. Iris works behind the scenes, recruiting and preparing the agents for their missions in France, and evaluating their wireless messages from enemy territory.
The starting point for Iris’s story was the real-life figure of Vera Atkins, the senior woman officer at SOE’s French Section in London (Mavis Acton, in this novel). A strong woman who provoked strong reactions, Vera Atkins proved her mettle by her resolute determination to discover what had happened to those SOE agents who did not return after the end of the war, especially the women she had personally recruited.
The character of Xavier Descours was suggested by the real Henri Déricourt, a pilot in civilian life and wartime flight liaison officer between the RAF and the French Resistance. After the war, there were many questions about his true motives, and whether he was a double-agent for the Nazis, or triple-agent working for the Allies. It is a question that remains unresolved.
The air museum at what was once RAF Tangmere in Sussex, was a fascinating source of information. The clandestine flights carrying passengers into and out of occupied France operated from this airfield, and there is a large collection of artefacts from the era. The idea of ghosts from the era may not be as far-fetched as it seems, either.
According to the staff and volunteers at Tangmere, there have been several ghostly sightings at quiet times, especially around the doomed Battle of Britain plane that has been reassembled from fragments dug out of its crash site. They also told me a tale of the disembodied arm clad in wartime RAF uniform that politely opens doors for the cleaners early in the morning…
The island of Porquerolles, off the southern French coast, is the setting for the first story, The Sea Garden. Early in the summer season, before the main crowds have arrived, the diving by the cliffs and calanques is spectacular, and there are shipwrecks on the seabed that are now home to fish and corals.
Some of the wrecks date from the Second World War, when the island was occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans. The only Frenchmen allowed to remain were the lighthouse keeper, Monsieur Pellegrino and his assistant. In 1944, Pellegrino saved the lighthouse from destruction by the Germans, an act of heroism for which he earned the French Cross of the Legion of Honour. Although I proceeded to take liberties with the historical facts in this story, this was the starting point for this section.
The book opens with bright splashes of colour on Porquerolles, plunges into the sightless world of Marthe Lincel and moves to a stark black, white and grey London in the 1940s. Links between their different stories are deliberately subtle; but they are there, in the very different experiences of each of the three young women.
A few questions to ponder:
• What is the nature of the haunting at the Domaine de Fayols?
• What is the significance of the timing of Ellie’s meetings with Gabriel?
• How does Marthe’s lack of sight change the narrative perspective of The Lavender Field?
• If you have also read The Lantern, does knowing Marthe’s story change the impact of her appearance in that novel now?
• Does Iris ever really know Xavier?
• What do all three stories have to say about truth and trust?
• Does the Sea Garden actually refer to the garden at the Domaine de Fayols, or is it to be found elsewhere?