I’ve heard such good things about Jacqui Lofthouse’s writing that I’m delighted to welcome her to Linda’s Book Bag today to stay in and tell me all about one of her books. I’m especially pleased because Jacqui is being published by Blackbird Books and they always have such wonderful authors.
Staying in with Jacqui Lofthouse
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Jacqui and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me. Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?
I’ve chosen my novel Bluethroat Morning. I’m very excited because the novel was originally published by Bloomsbury in the year 2000, but there were no ebooks at that time – so I’m delighted that the first digital edition of Bluethroat Morning will be published by Blackbird on 22nd May. The novel is a literary mystery set on the North Norfolk coast. Back in 2000, the novel had several foreign editions and even became a bestseller in Holland – so it’s fantastic to think that this digital version might help the novel reach an entirely new English-speaking audience… The story means so much to me and I really can’t wait to share it afresh…
(What an exciting development for Bluethroat Morning. It seems hard to remember a time without e-books. I love the Norfolk Coast so I shall have to read Bluethroat Morning as soon as I can. I have an extract to share with blog readers too so we can all get a taste for it.)
What can we expect from an evening in with Bluethroat Morning?
I hope that readers will find it a very atmospheric story, fully of intrigue and steeped in history too. The moody Norfolk landscape is almost a character in the novel and I’m so pleased that the new cover of the novel really reflects this with the huge sky and the tiny cottage, dwarfed by it.
The tale centres around Harry Bliss, a schoolteacher, haunted by the memory of his wife Alison, a celebrity model and critically acclaimed writer who committed suicide by walking into the sea one ‘bluethroat morning’. Six years later, he returns to the town where she killed herself with his young lover, Helen – also obsessed by Alison. In Norfolk they meet ninety-eight year old Ern Higham, and a tale is revealed that has been generations in the making. Harry has to piece together a tragic history if he is ever to move forward with his own life…
(I love the sound of this. I’m even more excited to read it now.)
I’m quite a literary writer – I wrote the novel shortly after completing my MA in Creative Writing at UEA (University of East Anglia) under Malcolm Bradbury, back in the 90s – and I hope readers will really enjoy the language in the novel and the many layers. There’s a lot to unravel here and much to keep you guessing.
I was lucky at the time of first publication to get lots of lovely reviews from newspapers and writers that I really admire.
Tracey Chevalier wrote a review of the novel in the ‘Ham & High’ newspaper. She said,
There are many elements to savour in this novel: the intertwining of past and present; the struggle to write and the responsibility of writing about others’ lives. Best of all, Lofthouse has a fine eye for the bleak Norfolk landscape and how it both reflects and affects characters’ moods
(What an endorsement. You must be thrilled to have such a comment from such an esteemed writer.)
And the Daily Mail called it “A thriller full of twists and turns that keeps the reader guessing. Every word is magical, almost luminous.”
Of course, I was very pleased at these reviews, but I also know that each reader has to make up their own mind about a novel and I do hope that new readers will enjoy it as much as many of the first ones did.
(I’m sure we will Jacqui.)
What else have you brought along this evening and why?
Five years after the book’s first publication I returned to Norfolk to see Cley beach again (known as Glaven in the book) and also Holkham. I thought you might enjoy my photographs of the beach from that trip. Cley beach is indeed a bleak landscape: when you walk along that beach you can see nothing but the sea and the steep shingle bank – the sense of isolation there inspired the mood of my writing. When I wrote the novel, it was an image from an abandoned novel that first inspired me – a Victorian woman walks along that shingle beach in a bustle dress by the side of her dying uncle, who can barely catch his breath. That image wouldn’t leave me, but I’d sworn I’d now write a modern novel – how could I make sense of this? That was my starting point…
The Holkham shots give an idea of the vast Norfolk sky.
(These are wonderful photos Jacqui. They really transport me to an area I know and love so well.)
And finally I had a little fun with my children in the sand…
(Quite right too!)
The title refers to a particular type of weather mentioned in my historical research – when the bird, the bluethroat is most likely to be spotted. In case you’re not familiar with the bluethroat, here’s a picture of one:
(What a delightful looking bird. I’ve never seen one, though I’ve been to Titchwell Marsh Bird Reserve, not a million miles away from your book’s setting, many times.)
And here’s a link to its song.
We might fancy thinking about Norfolk holidays whilst we’re talking about the novel, so if you really want to ‘live’ the novel, then there’s no better place to stay than Cley Mill.
Oh. I totally agree. Thanks so much for staying in with me Jacqui. I feel totally transported to the Norfolk coast by hearing about Bluethroat Morning.
It’s been a pleasure to share your company Linda!
Alison Bliss, celebrity model and critically acclaimed writer, walks into the sea one ‘bluethroat morning’. In death she becomes a greater icon than in life, and the Norfolk village where she lived is soon a place of pilgrimage. Six years later her husband Harry, a schoolteacher, is still haunted by her suicide and faithful to her memory. Until he meets Helen and they fall in love.
Harry and Helen’s relationship initiates a return to the scene of Alison’s death where they meet ninety-eight year old Ern Higham, and a tale is revealed that has been generations in the making. As Harry pieces together a tragic history and finally confronts his own pain, he discovers that to truly move forward, first he must understand the past…
Bluethroat Morning is available for purchase in ebook here.
An Extract from Bluethroat Morning
I saw her, first, before the Piero. It was in the west wing of the gallery and I had been heading for the Bellinis, though I never actually reached them. It was late autumn, one of those grim, grey days when the rain drives one indoors and the east wing of the gallery, where the Impressionists were housed, was packed pretty full. I had come in on a whim, after lunching with a friend in the Crypt at St Martin’s. Before lunch, there had been no sign of rain, but as we emerged from the restaurant, the sky bore down on us and the clouds were yellow-edged and heavy.
My friend, an archivist, had to get back to work and he headed off, before the rain began. It was half term and I had no plans, so I wandered down into the square, hoping that the weather would hold a little longer. I suppose, at the time, I was enjoying my freedom, having recently split with a woman, a fellow teacher who had grown tired of waiting for a proposal. I felt relieved at the whole thing. Something about being single again made me feel carefree. I wanted to make the most of the city in which I lived.
I walked beneath Nelson’s Column, watching the pigeons scatter at my feet. It was then that the skies opened. There was nobody else about, none fool enough to risk the downpour, so I retraced my steps, took refuge, alone under the plane tree. I remember feeling happy, quite indescribably happy as I breathed the fresh, damp air and watched the rain drip from the leaves above and from the noses of the great bronze lions.
About me, above the pavements, black umbrellas blossomed. I knew I could not stay out for long and the gallery looked more than inviting. During a brief lull, I made a dash for it. I crossed the road, being nearly run down by a black cab, and headed towards my future.
I noticed her as soon as I entered the room. She was the only one before that particular painting, The Baptism of Christ. I remember halting, briefly, when I saw her. I did not recognise her, but rather, what impressed me, was her apparent communion with the painting. Not just her eyes, but her whole face, even her body seemed affected by what she saw, as if the whole of her attention was focused on the image before her. It was most remarkable. She lacked the distraction of ordinary people.
Oddly, I remember thinking that she was beautiful and that I wanted to get to know her. I said to myself, ‘It’s not the kind of beauty that most people would like, it’s a strange, surreal beauty.’ Of course, if I had guessed, at first, that it was Alison Oakley, I would never have approached her. But I didn’t see it. True, she had height and poise, but she had not fully recovered from her illness and she was far too thin. She was dressed in jeans and a loose sweater, which swamped her. Her hair was dishevelled and she wore no make-up. What attracted me, most of all, was her expression. She was captivated, almost as if she had never seen anything quite like that before. I didn’t want to break the spell, so I simply stood beside her and we looked together. I told myself this was ridiculous, a mere fantasy. I was aware of all the clichés surrounding such a meeting and I didn’t know how to avoid them. Instead, I allowed my attention to be drawn upwards, to the painting itself. And when I looked at the Christ-figure, so still and serene, I felt myself inadequate. I wanted to enter the painting, as she did, but I felt myself excluded.
In the end, it was her that spoke.
‘Is he famous, this della Francesca?’
I laughed, relieved. I had assumed she was an art critic or scholar.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Very.’
‘I thought so.’
‘What do you make of it?’ I asked.
She hesitated, looking at me a little strangely. Then she smiled, that huge, broad film-star smile that was instantly recognisable, despite her drawn face. Why had I not seen it before? I started, felt rather terrified, but somehow guessed that she didn’t want me to know who she was. In any case, it wasn’t Alison Oakley the model that I was interested in. It was the woman I had first seen before the painting.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said at last. ‘But I can’t say why I like it.’
‘The purity of it, I suppose. Oh, I don’t know much about art.’
‘You don’t have to know to enjoy.’
‘I remember we came here when I was in the sixth form. I haven’t been since. It makes me feel a bit ignorant. I suppose you know all about this stuff.’
Again, I laughed.
‘I know a little,’ I said.
And now, of course, we’re all even more desperate to get Bluethroat Morning onto our TBRs.
About Jacqui Lofthouse
Jacqui Lofthouse began her career in radio production and media training. In 1992 she studied for her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia under Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. She is founder of The Writing Coach and the author of four novels, The Temple of Hymen (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin 1995/1996), Bluethroat Morning (Bloomsbury 2000/Blackbird 2018), Een Stille Verdwijning, (De Bezige Bij 2005) and The Modigliani Girl (Blackbird 2015). Her novels have sold over 100,000 copies in the UK, the USA and Europe and have been widely reviewed.
You can find out more about Jacqui’s novels here.
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