IN LOVE WITH PARIS
THIS AUTHOR’S ALTER-EGO EMBARKS ON A FICTIONAL FLING IN A CITY AWASH WITH BOHEMIAN BEAUTY
Oh, to be Kiki Button, the socialite, private detective and spy living the fast life in Paris amid the artists, bohemians and other flotsam who find themselves washed up in the city in the aftermath of the Great War.
Kiki is Katherine King Button, a sassy Australian nurse who still carries the horrors of the war and has vowed never to take orders again. After two years at home, she flees her well-heeled parents and their demands that she marry in search of bright lights and freedom.
It is a luscious set up for Sydney author Tessa Lunney’s debut novel, April in Paris,
1921, the title setting the scene at the eve of Paris’s les annes folles era, “the crazy years” when Paris was re-establishing itself as the centre for artists, parties and the post-war embracing of life. The book was Lunney’s “next project” after completing a creative arts doctorate that explored silence in Australian war fiction.
“It’s a much lighter and brighter work – a lot more fun,” she says. “But it was very much informed by all the research I did.”
Lunney says the novel had a long gestation period, over a decade, but the seed was planted after she read Among the Bohemians, an account of the artistic life in London, much of it taking place in the 1920s.
“It was an answer to a prayer. I was dreaming how I might have been there.”
The more she researched, she realised it was Paris that was the real centre of bohemian life in the post-ww1 years with its gathering artists, writers, displaced aristocrats and war-scarred citizens.
This is where Kiki finds herself as a society gossip columnist and a model/casual lover of Picasso who enlists her to find a missing painting of his wife. Her past catches up with her when her old wartime spymaster contacts her to seek out a double agent or risk the life of her adored Tom, Kiki’s one weak spot in her quest for absolute freedom.
The war is always an undercurrent in the novel and there are already political stirrings involving the German brown shirts and the communists. Kiki must navigate it all, using parties, informants and her wily ways to solve the mysteries foisted upon her.
Lunney has done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of the times, particularly the ever-present but largely unspoken traumas of the war as they continue to haunt the wide cast of characters, Kiki among them. It is perhaps ironic given her work on the silences in war fiction. “Yes, in a way it is another version of that,” she says.
But what is unsaid gives an emotional depth to a novel that is otherwise fabulous fun, full of repartee, alcohol-fuelled rendezvous and fast-living characters.
But, wait, can it be a coincidence that the inimitable Kiki shares the same blonde bob and liberal streak as her creator?
“My cousins say that Kiki is my alter-ego,” Lunney laughs. “Let’s just say Kiki is who I would want to be if I was in that time.
“She says all the lines I would want to say; she’s daring when I would be sensible. It’s wish fulfilment.”
Ah, as fiction should be. Lunney’s acting background is no doubt an asset in her character creation. She wanted to be an actor until she realised in her early twenties it wasn’t going to happen for her.
It’s only in retrospect that it’s become clear to her that she was always a writer.
“When I had to do my final drama piece, I wrote my own instead of finding something. I wrote university essays, poetry, I was a big reader as a kid and did journal writing.
“My acting probably comes out in the research I do into characters. There’s a strong research foundation to the book. I read a lot of history and my husband is Russian. There were so many Russian aristocrats in Paris at that time who’d fled the revolution in Russia. Many of them left everything behind except their titles.”
Kiki rubs shoulders, often more, with the eclectic party set she mixes with but the stakes are high and there is intrigue and menace until the very end. At times the cast of supporting characters seems unnecessarily vast with their appearances intermittent but, as it turns out, Lunney has a wider plan.
This will not be Kiki’s only adventure. The stage is set for more Kiki Button mysteries in her Parisian playground in the exciting, turbulent times between the wars.
“I’ve begun the next adventure,” Lunney says. “Many of the characters are back. Kiki still has a long way to go.”
Kiki, and her many friends, will no doubt drink to that. Readers who enjoy mystery in a vibrant historical setting with a liberal dose of fun will as well. Salut.