Place is important to me when it comes to telling a story; there is drama in the natural landscape itself, in the communities and cultures that have inhabited an area. Borders in particular. I’m fascinated by them. An imaginary line, cutting the land into separate identities. A gulf that can be crossed in a step.
The kernel for The Secrets Between Us sprang into being when I read a Wikipedia page about a village called Saint-Martin-Vésubie, near the French-Italian border, in the Alpes-Maritimes. The page briefly mentioned the route de sel, an ancient road used to transport salt since Roman times, that even today can be followed all the way from the Mediterranean, across the perilous mountain passes into Italy.
My interest piqued, I carried on reading, and learned something remarkable: that during the Second World War, when the region was occupied by the Italian Fourth Army, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, and several other mountain villages, became havens of relative safety for Jewish refugees.
Once I had read about this – the border, the salt road, the Italian occupation and the refugees – I knew I wanted to try and write a story set amongst it all. I knew I wanted to bring these events to life for readers who may never have heard of them otherwise.
The characters of Celeste and Myriam seemed to arrive together between breaths. From the very start, they were there. Celeste was always a baker too. It just felt right. The more I write about food in fiction, the more I want to dig down into fundamentals; not only the immediacy of sensation, but the profound effect taste can have on memory and emotion. Salt – the most elemental aspect of what we eat – captured that idea. As I read more about salt and its sources, I discovered the salt mines of Cheshire, now used for data storage. I loved the idea of that; a mineral essential for life carved from the earth, making way for proof of life. Bringing the two concepts together in the character of Annie was irresistible.
The same is true of bread. In the west, for thousands of years, bread has been a vital substance. Bread and water and salt literally kept people alive. Bread is a signifier of civilisation, of hospitality, of shared allegiances. To break bread with someone implies a bond of mutual acceptance and respect.
Now, more than ever, it seemed important to write about recognising strangers as people; not as numbers on files, or a faceless group used to scare the population into compliance through misplaced fear that what might be taken. It seemed important to be alert to the fact that words like “immigrant” and “refugee” have been used to dehumanise before, with unimaginably barbaric consequences. It seemed vital to remember that in the act of sharing food, of breaking bread, we recognise each other’s needs: we recognise each other as human.
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High in the mountains in the South of France, eighteen-year-old Ceci Corvin is trying hard to carry on as normal. But in 1943, there is no such thing as normal; especially not for a young woman in love with the wrong person. Scandal, it would seem, can be more dangerous than war.
Fifty years later, Annie is looking for her long-lost grandmother. Armed with nothing more than a sheaf of papers, she travels from England to Paris in pursuit of the truth. But as she traces her grandmother’s story, Annie uncovers something she wasn’t expecting, something that changes everything she knew about her family – and everything she thought she knew about herself…