Welcome to week four of my lockdown book blog. Today, we're heading to Scotland's east coast and Estonia with F J Curlew thanks to her latest novel The Unravelling of Maria.
First, what a blurb!
Lovers separated by the Iron Curtain.
Two women whose paths should never have crossed.
A remarkable journey that changes all of their lives.
Maria's history is a lie. Washed up on the shores of Sweden in 1944, with no memory, she was forced to create her own. Nearly half a century later she still has no idea of her true identity.
Jaak fights for Estonia's independence, refusing to accept the death of his fiancée Maarja, whose ship was sunk as she fled across the Baltic Sea to escape the Soviet invasion.
Angie knows exactly who she is. A drug addict. A waste of space. Life is just about getting by.
A chance meeting in Edinburgh's Cancer Centre is the catalyst for something very different.
Sometimes all you need is someone who listens.
The Unravelling of Maria opens with an elderly woman making a frantic, rather manic night-time escape from a hated institution. She’s planned it meticulously, conditioning herself over months by counting steps and pacing the grounds till she’s ready, but she hasn’t factored in heavy rain and darkness. She hasn’t factored in bitter cold, and the danger she might fall in a sodden and muddy roadside ditch. It’s in the extremes of this episode that the reader first meets Maria, and wonders – who is this woman? Has she lost her mind? Will she be able to survive?
Angie is the polar opposite of the elderly woman she first meets in an Edinburgh cancer clinic. That woman’s dress, manners and diction set her apart from the ordinary people there. She’s obviously an aristocrat. But Angie feels a class apart as well. Junkie, prostitute, abandoned as a child, abused and battered – Angie’s had to deal with it all.
From the random chance of sitting together when they’re anxious about diagnosis and treatment, these two women bond, gradually overcoming mutual reservations and drawing strengths from each other. And as their relationship develops, we learn something of Maria’s surprising backstory. At least, the part she knows. Because Maria has no recollection of the first two decades of her life. This is where the novel’s title makes us really think. What exactly is unravelling?
I absolutely loved this book. At times upbeat, at times pained, it’s the perfect blend of adventure and emotion, of harsh life conditions meets fellow-feeling, companionship and security. And love.
There’s a third character in the story. Through following Jaak’s experiences over the decades, we unpack a grisly history of war-time abuses, Siberian labour camps and the struggle for Estonian independence. Fiona Curlew has us follow each character’s inner voice to experience first-hand their traumas and their triumphs.
It’s a big job, dove-tailing all the time-frames, backstories and desires, with all those aches, dreams and losses, but Curlew does this with assuredness. More than that, she has the reader willing her characters on. I found myself earnestly yearning everything would work out for them with each new risk they took, and with each new adversity they encountered.
Does it all work out in the end? You’ll have to read the book to find out. You’ll be so glad you did.
|Author F J Curlew|
Q & A
I could hardly wait to chat with F J Curlew to find out more about The Unravelling of Maria.
CMcK: Thanks for joining my lockdown book blog, Fiona. I thoroughly enjoyed your novel. The two women main characters are so different from one another in terms of their histories. What inspired you to write about them, and to unite them in one story?
FJC: Thank you for having me Carol! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I’ll be honest, the characters took a very long time to show themselves. I had spent fifteen years teaching in international schools, predominantly in Eastern Europe. Seven of those years were spent in Estonia. Over that time my love for the little country flourished as I learned of their struggle, their resilience, their love of nature, and how song helped to keep their culture alive. Their hope alive. I knew that it was something I wanted to write about, but how? I wrote and rewrote, wrote and deleted. It just wasn’t coming to me. I began to despair and gave up for a while, focusing instead on writing a different book. When that was finished I tried again. Nope! I wrote another book. Perhaps now? Finally, Maria and Jaak said hello and began telling me their stories. But it wasn’t enough. Finally, Angie dropped into the cancer centre and from then on it just flowed. I hadn’t planned to have two such diverse characters interacting with each other, but they clicked and I loved writing them.
CMcK: Both main settings are lovingly depicted, and there’s a subtle hint that spending time in these calm, natural environments is good for the characters’ healing. Is writing about the natural world something you enjoy? How important were the wide beaches of East Lothian and Pärnu to your characters, and to you?
FJC: Absolutely essential! I love nature and it plays an important role in all of my books. One of my readers described my writing as, “Human experience impacted upon by political situation, interwoven with a love of nature.” That pretty much sums it up perfectly! I also accredit my own survival to being fortunate enough to have beauty right on my doorstep. Places to breathe, to recharge, to recover. Many hours have been spent strolling along Scottish and Estonian beaches contemplating life. I lent Maria that bit of me.
CMcK: Maria and Angie have very different living conditions when they meet. Both have suffered terrible constraints emotionally and physically. While Maria’s story is the primary one in the novel, Angie’s is pretty gritty and harrowing. Which was more difficult to write?
FJC: Without doubt, Angie’s. She had so many challenges to face and as I wrote I didn’t know if she was going to pull through. The idea of her was based on a young woman I met in the 1980’s. Her life was harrowing, heart-breaking, made even more so by the anger in her and the dismissiveness which she cast at the world, masking what was really going on; hiding her true feelings. Maria, on the other hand, always has a positivity to her which made it easy to be inside her head. Angie’s? No. Not so much. It was quite a scary place to be!
CMcK: I’ve said there are three main characters in the book, but actually there are four. One who gives and receives unconditional love. Tell me about Albie!
FJC: All of my books have dogs in them. I can’t help myself. What’s a life without a dog in it? My second book, Dan Knew, is the story of 15 years of my life and travels, told through the eyes and in the voice of one of my rescued Ukrainian street dogs. So, yes, Maria had to have a dog. Something feisty and full of character. I observe people all of the time (if only they knew!) and on my daily dog walk there are a couple of Border Terriers who were the inspiration behind Albie. I won’t say that I stalked them but, well, I sort of did!
CMcK: It’s been so interesting hearing about your writing. Where can we buy The Unravelling of Maria and find out more about you and your other novels? What’s next for you?
FJC: The Unravelling of Maria is available through Amazon and The Book Depository. I am hoping to expand on that in the near future. You can of course check out my website for updates, or follow me on Twitter. Novel number 5 is just beginning to show itself to me, I think! It might be a thriller. It might be a love story. It’ll probably be both. As always, I’ll know once the characters show themselves to me and are telling me their stories. Not quite there yet!
CMcK: Thank you, Fiona!
Check out F J Curlew's author website at https://bit.ly/3okI3MV.
She’s on Twitter @FJCurlew
Her books are available here https://amzn.to/333mCr2