Her stunning debut novel set in Suffolk is on the New Angle prize shortlist
NOW would seem the perfect time to be in the business of political analysis and research. Writer Fiona Melrose has spent the past two decades trying to make sense of the world, working variously for government organisations, investment companies and academia.
“My brain is good at analysis, taking huge amounts of information and distilling it into something coherent,” she says. “But just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you should do it. I had an aptitude for it, and when you’ve got to get a job, you follow that path. Then suddenly it’s 20 years later and you’re thinking ‘I have no idea what I’m doing here’.”
A change of direction for Fiona meant leaving her home in South Africa and moving to Suffolk, to stay with her brother and his family on their farm near Woodbridge.
“It seemed a lovely adventure,” she says, as she recalls days spent walking dogs and keeping horses, while she worked out what she wanted to do next. Remembering how her youth was spent “moping around in black polo necks”, recorded in endless pages of diaries and “tragic teenage poems”, she decided to take a course in creative writing to see if this could once again prove a therapeutic exercise.
“I loved it,” she says. “There was no time to be precious and self-indulgent, sitting around waiting for the muse, you just had to get the work done. And I think I learned less about how to write and more about how to read.
“Learning how you read changes how and why you write, and extends what’s possible in your writing.” When she completed a short story for the course, Fiona realised she had more to say about the Suffolk farming family she had created. The novel, Midwinter, was the result.
It’s the story of Landyn Midwinter and his son, farming for a while in Zambia before returning to battle the frozen Suffolk landscape, contending with their emotions of guilt and grief at the loss of their wife and mother. The two men are unable to communicate effectively and a bitter argument results in a drunken night voyage on the river, with tragic consequences. It is powerful, bleak and atmospheric.
“I was shocked at the response to Midwinter,” Fiona says. “The book market is so crowded and there are lots of big, exciting books. Midwinter is a quiet book, a Suffolk farmer book.
“Debut novels can sink without a trace. I only hoped for a couple of nice reviews in the newspapers.”
This she achieved, and more. Midwinter was included on the long list for the Baileys Prize this year, and is on the shortlist for the New Angle Literary Prize, soon to be announced.
The confidence she has gained from this endorsement, the support of her publishing team, and the encouragement from other authors, often through Twitter, which Fiona uses extensively, has led to a second novel following this month, and she’s busy working on the third. “I’m a quick writer,” she says. In fact, the first draft of her new book, Johannesburg, set in the South African city she now calls home, was completed in a month.
“I came back to the city in December when everyone packs up and disappears to the coast. I had no idea how to pass the time. So I thought, ‘I’ve got a month, if I bang out 2,000 words a day, that’s 62,000 words, and that’s a book’.”
This was also the time of Nelson Mandela’s death, and Fiona spent each day writing a journal of how this loss felt for her, for the city and for the nation. Johannesburg has been refined since the early draft and thoughts from the journal have been integrated.
The result is an homage to the construction and spirit of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, with the story taking place on a single day.
The searing heat of the South African summer is the ever-present backdrop to the preparations for a party. Gin has returned home from New York to mark her mother’s 80th birthday. Memories and former relationships surface, and emotions are heightened as news breaks of Tata’s death. For the South African nation, with its history of apartheid, it’s a time for taking stock and looking back.
Fiona describes the book as a hymn to the city, as much as it is about a city that is broken and fractured. Certainly, place has had a profound impact on Fiona’s writing to date and, while she won’t reveal the details of her third novel, she admits that she has been drawn back to Suffolk for the setting.
“There’s something unfathomable about Suffolk,” she says, describing how Blythburgh church symbolises all she puzzles over in our distinctive landscape.
“This huge church built on completely unstable ground. There’s the shifting marshland, half ocean and half land, half salt and half turf. There are all these intersections between what’s solid and what’s not, and what’s tangible and what’s intangible. It has an amazing eery, ghostly feel – the Suffolk gothic!
“There’s something about Suffolk. I’m not done with it, creatively and, possibly, emotionally. I have a lot of myself invested in exploring it as a subject and a location. I’d like to spend at least another book there.”
Her growing legion of fans can’t wait.
Frozen Suffolk is the setting for Fiona Melrose’s debut novel. Photo: Stephen Squirrell