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Author:
• Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1964 to an English father and a French mother. Both her parents taught modern languages and literature at a local grammar school. Harris was educated at Wakefield Girls’ High School, Barnsley Sixth Form College and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge where she studied modern and medieval languages.

After training as a teacher at Sheffield University, she taught modern languages at Leeds Grammar School, an independent boy’s school in Yorkshire, for fifteen years and at Sheffield University. She was awarded honorary doctorates in literature from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Sheffield and was also made an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Joanne Harris is an acclaimed writer. She has written several books among which some were dedicated to gastronomical pleasure. She has received numerous awards and her books have been translated into several languages and published in many countries. In 2013 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and she is a patron of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation.

Joanne Harris lives with her husband in a little wood in Yorkshire and dedicates her time to writing books as a means of living. In an interview she says that she has always written since she was a child.

Harris’s French relatives live in Brittany. Her grandfather had a beach house on an island off southern Brittany which looked just like the island of Le Devin in Coastliners. Coastliners was published in 2002 in English and in 2005 in French.

The narrator of Coastliners is called Madeleine but everybody calls her by her nickname, Mado. She is a Parisian painter specialised in seascapes due to her attachment to her native island. She is always trying to recapture the images that remain in her mind from the past and to appease her longing to return home to les Salants. Les Salants is a small island off Noirmoutier near Le Devin. It’s an imaginery island close to the coast of France. Mado goes back in order to care for her aging father, GrosJean Prasteau, a former boat-builder and a silent, depressed and withdrawn man who is haunted and psychologically blocked by an old guilt concerning the accidental death of his beloved brother. Mado returns with the will to reconcile with him after so many years of estrangement. She wants to start a new relationship with her father in the hope of gaining his approval and love.

After ten years spent with her now deceased mother in Paris, Mado, now a young woman, discovers upon her return home that nothing has changed on the island since her absence. The two rival clans, the Houssins and the Salannais still hold ancestral hatreds against each other. She takes upon herself to improve the life of the poverty-striken Salanais by saving les Salants from the destructive sea, caused in part by natural causes and in part by the Houssins.

The Houssins live at the other end of the island. The powerfully rich local entrepreneur Houssin, Claude Brismand, owns the ferry that transports tourists from the mainland to Le Devin. He erected the costly breakwater in order to shelter la Houssinière from sea erosion and to control the lucrative tourism through the island’s only beach, thus allowing the tides to flood Les Salants and leave the fatalist as well as superstitious Salanais to fight for their own survival.

Mado sets a secret plan to help the fishing community in her village with the help of the young attractive, enigmatic Irishman, Richard Flynn, by building a rudimentary barrier with sand bags and old tyres to redirect the tides away from Les Salants. Mado has in mind to make Les Salants a touristic, prosperous holiday resort and fight the ruthless manipulator and machiavellian Claude Brismand, who has a hidden, evil plan to dispossess the land and properties of the poor Salanais and own Les Salants himself.

Richard Flynn is an outsider who has been accepted by the Salanais as one of them and who everybody in the village calls, Rouget, because of his red hair. He presents himself to Mado “with an ironic flourish” as a “philosopher, builder, sculptor, welder, fisherman, handyman, weatherman…”

The story of Coastliners underlines how small villages are forgotten by bigger communities and have to fight for themselves and unite in times of adversity. To achieve their goal, they were missing the help of an energetic tenacious leader, like the persuasive Mado. She comes to their rescue and never loses hope despite hardships to carry her people through tough times. She endeavours to pull the villagers out of their lethargy, passiveness, in-grained superstitious and ancient rituals toward their patron, St. Marine-de-la-mer. One of their beliefs is that if you kiss the feet of St. Marine-de-la-mer and spit three times, something that you have lost will come back to you. Their maxim is:“everything returns”.

The story also portrays the rivalries, jealousy and betrayal between Mado and her older married sister, Adrienne, as well as the great deceit when Mado by chance discovers the secret relationship between Flynn and Brismand who were plotting against her father’s interests on one side and her sister and her husband Marin Brismand, the nephew and heir of the same Claude Brismand, on the other side. In her novel the author emphasizes how the yearning for material possessions prevails over family ties, love and values.

Coastliners is the battle of good versus evil. The story is slow paced but the plot picks up and mysteries and twists are revealed at the end of the novel. Despite the numerous characters and their complicated relationships, the story is uncomplicated. The author describes charmingly and with her flowing prose an accurate and lively portrayal of the islanders who are still living as in the old days, oblivious to the passage of time, modern life and what’s happening in the world. Reading Coastliners is like embarking on a voyage out of time.

Author:
• Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Helen Simonson was born in Slough, Berkshire in 1964 and spent her teenage years in a small village near Rye in East Sussex, England. She graduated from the London School of Economics where she met her future American husband. She worked as a travel advertising executive and completed a masters degree in creative writing from Stony Brook Southampton, New York.

She has lived in the Washington D.C. Area and Brooklyn, New York, for over twenty years with her husband and two sons.

Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010, became a New York Times bestseller and was translated and published in several countries. Her second novel, The Summer Before The War, will be published in 2016.

Edgecombe St Mary is a small village in the English countryside in East Sussex where the two main characters live. Major Ernest Pettigrew, the sixty-eight year old widower, who lost his wife six years earlier, leads a peaceful life in his rural rose-covered cottage called Rose Lodge with a beautiful climbing clematis, the envy of his neighbours. And the good-looking Pakistani widow, ten years his junior, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the village shopkeeper who runs the business with her nephew, Abdul Wahid. Jasmina was born in Cambridge and has been bred by her learned, Anglophile father.

The story starts with the Major still in a daze after the shock following a phone call at dawn from his sister-in-law, announcing his younger brother Bertie’s death from a massive heart attack. Soon after, he answers the door-bell to find Mrs Ali who has come for the newspaper money because the paper-boy is sick. Still feeling the loss of his brother deeply, the major’s knees give way and he is about to faint but Mrs Ali props him up, takes him indoors and sits him down before fetching some water and making him tea.

Major Pettigrew is a conservative, sardonic, well-mannered gentleman who likes to live by his principles. He was born in Lahore and lived in colonial India as a child and is now a retired British Army officer who lives alone. He was happily married to his wife, Nancy, and late in life they had their only son, Roger, who was spoilt by his mother to his father’s discontent. Roger, now in his thirties, works in finance and lives in London. Throughout the novel, the author underlines the major’s disapproval of his insufferably brash son’s lack of respect, tact and bad behaviour.

There is a great cultural divide between the major and his son. The major likes to read classical English authors like Joseph Kipling, John Keats and William Wordsworth. He is a pragmatic person, values traditions, correctness and righteousness. Unlike his father, Roger is an uncultured, manipulative, superficial person, ruthlessly self-seeking, a social-climber who is always attracted to novelties and fashion in all domains. He wants his father to get rid of his beloved books in order to make room for an up-to-date wide-screen television.

The major is sentimental about what he considers his heritage, the valuable pair of heirloom antique guns which were given to his father by a maharajah as a reward for an act of bravery for saving the maharajah’s latest and youngest wife from a train full of murdering thugs. The major’s father, on his death bed, divided the prized Churchill guns between his two sons on the understanding that the two guns were to be reunited when one of the sons died. When Bertie passes away, the major is faced with the greed of his sister-in-law, Marjorie, his niece, Jemima, and his son Roger all wanting to sell the pair of guns and enjoy the money regardless of what the major feels or thinks.

Solid friendship between the major and Mrs Ali flourishes through sharing the same things, like the loss of their respective beloved spouses, their disobliging, bigoted families despite different ethnicity, their love of nature, their passion for literature, especially the works of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Kipling and others. They also have in common a sense of duty as well as being proud, polite and courteous.

The major and Mrs Ali surprise themselves by discovering that their hearts have no wrinkles, they can still feel passion and fall in love again regardless of their advanced age, different experiences in life, different cultural backgrounds and religion. All these elements constitute no barrier to common shared interests, mutual attraction and love.

Helen Simonson undertook a fair amount of research into the Pakistani community in England, the Indian Mughal Empire, shot guns and duck shooting. As for the fictitious towns of Edgecombe St. Mary and Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea, they are a combination of places that the author “knows and loves”.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a well written novel with well depicted, realistic, rich characters where women are portrayed as emancipated, strong, determined characters such as Mrs Jasmina Ali, Mrs Rasool, and Roger’s American fiancée, Sandy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an endearingly captivating story underlining the differences between the old and the new generation. Despite the humour one cannot help noticing the blatant fanaticism, veiled racism and the insidious link between money and corruption and how money can deteriorate, divide and destroy families. There is also the romantic story between the two protagonists with the assertion that authentic love transcends all obstacles and all ages so long as one is being true to oneself and because as long as there is life, there is hope.

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