I love travel as much as I love books, but I’m not sure I’d travel to Haiti as Fiona Cane has done following the release of her latest novel The Other Side of the Mountain. Today Fiona tells us all about her post-publication visit to the country where her book is set – and what a visit it turned out to be!
The Other Side of the Mountain was published on 6th August 2015 and is available on your local Amazon site and from Waterstones. However, if you’re a UK reader, you have the chance to enter to win a paperback copy at the bottom of this blog post.
The Other Side of the Mountain
It’s 2001, and amidst the political turmoil in Haiti, three disparate lives collide: Yolande, an impoverished farmer desperately looking for the sister her abusive husband has sold into slavery; Maddy, an eager British journalist on her first overseas assignment, set on making a name for herself; and Clare, an ex-pat gynaecologist who’s devoted the past eight years to healing Haiti’s downtrodden women.
Divided by language, lifestyle and personality yet all driven by painful memories buried in their pasts, the three women unite to search for the missing child. It’s a quest that takes them deep into the city’s underworld, where poverty is rife, black magic thrives and violence is king; a world in which appearances can be deceptive and where survival is by no means certain.
Haiti – Real and Imagined
A Guest Post from Fiona Cane
A few weeks ago I travelled to Haiti, where my fourth book The Other Side of the Mountain is set. I was excited but I was nervous. It wasn’t the best time to be visiting. President Martelly was refusing to step down and the people were rioting in the streets. The root of my apprehension, however, lay deeper. The book had been published in August, but this would be my first visit. I know, it should have been the other way round, and that had been my intention, but life has an annoying habit of not always going to plan. I’d read dozens of books, scoured the internet, but now, at last, I was about to see the country I’d inhabited in my mind these past few years.
But would my ‘learned’ knowledge and my imagination match up to reality? Had I got it right?
‘So, where are you travelling on to?’ the laid-back US custom’s official asked when we touched down in Atlanta.
‘Haiti’, I replied confidently.
‘Haiti’?!! Whaddya wanna go there for? You missionaries?’
‘No, I’m a writer. My latest book is set there.’
‘O–kay. So you’ve been before?’
‘Er … no. This is my first time,’ I said, my confidence wavering.
‘So you want to see it before you submit?’
‘Yeah. Something like that.’
‘So you a counsellor then?’
‘What? No. I’m a writer and … um … a tennis coach.’
‘Jeez!’ he said exploding with laughter. ‘I been to Haiti once,’ he added. ‘Dangerous place. I kiss the ground I live on.’
Echoes of Maddy’s father’s reaction resounded in my ears. Life, it seems, really does imitate art.
My aim was to visit the locations featured in The Other Side of the Mountain, so I booked into the Oloffson Hotel where Maddy was based. With its towers and balconies, and tired but elaborate fretwork, it exuded the faded grandeur of a forgotten era. Walking up the sweeping horseshoe of dirty-white stone steps felt like stepping inside my own story, a feeling compounded when we were shown our room. The mahogany wardrobe had a door that wouldn’t shut properly, and there was a chest of drawers and a desk!
‘It’s Graham Greene times in Haiti. Empty hotels and political unrest,’ Richard Morse, the hotel manager and national celebrity, told us at breakfast the following morning.
‘Are we mad?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘No. You’re risk-takers.’
‘But I wouldn’t go anywhere without a guide.’
The once neat order of the Champs de Mars, a series of parks in Port-au-Prince’s centre, is the starkest reminder of the damage wrought by the devastating earthquake of 2010. Most of the iconic buildings, including the whiter-than-white National Palace, were destroyed and it is no longer a place to linger as it was in 2001, when The Other Side of the Mountain was set. The magnificent bronzes of the four heroes of Haiti have survived. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first leader of the first black republic, still sits astride his horse on a grassy mound, but the Marron Inconnu – the Unknown Slave – is now hidden behind a large fence under lock and key. But just as with everything in Haiti, if you know the right people, as our guide did, you can see the fabulous bronze at close hand.
The beautiful pretty pink-and-yellow Notre Dame Cathedral also lies in ruins, although the steps remain intact. I imagined Yolande sleeping there, ‘one eye open, one eye closed’. A lump formed in my throat. She’s not real, I reminded myself. You made her up.
Admiring the view from the hills, thirty minutes later, we saw a plume of smoke spiralling into the sky near the Cathedral.
‘Riot!’ our guide said, grinning.
‘Burning tyres?’ I asked, reminded of Maddy’s heart-in-the-mouth experience. Jean nodded. And tear gas we learned later but only one serious injury, a man who’d had a massive cinder block dropped on his head, a common occurrence in Haiti.
The streets were crowded with market sellers sitting under multi-coloured umbrellas, women carrying baskets on their heads and men wheeling wooden barrows. Pigs paddled in sewage as they feasted on mountains of rubbish, and hundreds of pedestrians jostled for space with battered cars, psychedelic tap taps overflowing with people and baggage, buses, lorries and motorbikes, while on the roadside, people chatted, played dominoes, shined shoes, built cabinets, styled hair, beat metal, and fixed cars.
Inching my way through, one day, I felt a tugging at my elbow. A cute little boy was smiling at me and rubbing his tummy.
‘Bonjou, Blan. Mwen grangou.’ (Hello, Foreigner. I’m hungry). He pointed to his mouth and held out his hand. ‘Monnen.’
My heart skipped a beat. It was word for word what happened to Maddy, only she gave money and, without spoiling the story, it didn’t turn out well. Within seconds street kids, bigger and a lot less cute, just as in the book, surrounded us. I started to panic. Avoid eye contact and move on, I told myself marching forward. The boys followed, still yelling, still smiling until, reaching a square guarded by a couple of policeman, they scattered.
We visited the Péligre Dam but not, like Maddy, by tap tap. The glassy blue lake flanked by mountains was low, so the river, below, wasn’t ‘rolling and crashing’ but there were boats on the lake and washerwomen on the edge. I had to pinch myself when a family, their luggage balanced on their heads, passed by on their way back from Carnival, just as ten-year-old Yolande and her family had done.
Zanmi Lasante, the prototype for the hospital where Clare works, is bigger than I expected but with its well-tended gardens and myriad of paved, low-walled walkways, connecting the labs, operating theatres, wards, consulting rooms, radiology with the college, orphanage and church, otherwise as I’d imagined. I half-expected to see my characters going about their business.
It was tough leaving Haiti. I loved being there and was thrilled that I’d captured its essence, a fact reinforced by so many Haitians complimenting me on my knowledge of their country. This was due to the books I’d read, but seeing is believing. My doubts vanquished, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d have studied Haiti in so much detail if I’d visited this wonderful country first?
About Fiona Cane
Fiona Cane graduated with a BA degree in Philosophy from Exeter University before moving to London where she worked in Film and Entertainment PR. Having spent a year travelling with her future husband, she qualified as a tennis coach and after a brief stint in sport’s management, she moved to Sussex with her young family and set up Smash Tennis. Since then she’s coached in schools and clubs and ran a series of spring and summer camps for local children. When she isn’t hitting tennis balls or writing, she’s an avid reader and a keen cinema-goer, enjoys watching cricket and rugby, plays golf, skis, runs, cycles and scuba dives. She lives in Sussex with her husband, two children and their faithful Westie, Gemma.
Enter to win a paperback copy (sorry UK only) of The Other Side of the Mountain by clicking here (Competition ends UK midnight on 13th April)