An Interview with Madeleine Bunting - Island Song

April 03, 2019

An Interview with Madeleine Bunting - Island Song

We are terrific fans of Madeleine Bunting's books and have been looking forward to her first novel 'Island Song' - released today!

'Island Song' is your second book on the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands.  What was it about the subject that you wished to return to it for your novel?

I started thinking about this novel in 1994 as I was researching my non-fiction history 'The Model Occupation - the Channel Islands under German Rule.'  The idea of the novel grew out of frustration - the historian's tantalising closeness to stories - you know certain things happened, people had particular experiences but you can't find the witnesses to describe it in enough detail.  I found one photo which told an extraordinary story: a young girl walking down a Guernsey lane with two German officers.  I spent a long time poring over the photograph because it was obvious that she was enjoying their company, and they hers.  She was wearing jodhpurs and riding boots.  The image spoke of her innocence, her attraction to these men and that it was reciprocated.  The complexity of this story is still a hidden part of British Second World War history; we have simplified our wartime as one of heroic defiance to Nazism.  What is so intriguing about the Channel Islands is that bring nuance and a host of 'what if' questions.  If Britain had been invaded, would there have been similar stories of collaboration and resistance, fraternisation and betrayals?  And the answer, of course, is yes.  

Why did you want Helene to tell her own story as it happens?

The historical record tells us much about the Occupation through letters and diaries and I interviewed dozens of people in researching my non-fiction book in the early nineties, but I often felt that some stories were elusive.  I heard odd details but nothing more.  There were some stories of the Occupation that no-one has ever wanted told, and it was that which brought me to Helene.  She has the kind of story that may well have happened but she would never have spoken about it to anyone. Furthermore, Guernsey is a highly-knit community and for many decades after the war, it held its secrets close as it sought to heal the deep divisions caused by the Occupation.  I wanted the reader to sympathise, not judge, and for that, I had to take them to the heart of one girl's story.  It starts with a betrayal - that if the Channel Islands by the UK; they were abandoned to their fate, a brutally pragmatic but deeply embarrassing decision in Whitehall.

Roz's search for the identity of her biological father forces her to question what she, and we as readers, think we know about what it would be like to live in close proximity to the 'enemy'.  Did you want to challenge a reader's assumptions of WWII?

Roz is searching for her father in the mid-nineties - a few years after the reunification of Germany - when Britain was struggling to come to terms with the idea that the Second World War and its aftermath were really finished and that the continent was forging a new future of increasing closeness (the Treaty of Maastricht had just been signed).  Of course, as we now realise, a significant strand of British politics did not accept this future and still turned back to the Second World War for inspiring visions of island defiance and resourcefulness.  Roz and Antoine are caught in a conversation about how history is used by nation states, and the different legacies of the Second World War for Britain and France.  In the process of their search for truth, the challenge to the reader is: what truths have you believed about the Second World War and why?

Helene is pulled towards both the escaped Russian POW and the Nazi officer.  How important was it to you to strike the balance between these two characters and what they represent?

I was fascinated by the love triangle between the three of them and I knew that I was stretching the reader's credulity to the limit but, as any historian of the Second World War will tell you - the records are full of such anomalies - and particularly in the Channel Islands, where there are plenty of testimonies of 'good Germans'.  What also intrigued me was how to create moral complexity.  I didn't want clarity.  Judgement has been such a default response to the German occupations across Europe but I wanted the reader to realise that judgement can be a very murky business.  Is Helene a heroine or a collaborator?  Is Heinrich a villain or an opportunist, who in a happier historical era is widely admired for making money?  Does war require of its participants that they rise to a higher than usual ethical standards or does that sound like a cop-out?

Of all the people I interviewed when I research 'The Model Occupation', the former slave labourer, Georgi Kondakov, made a lasting impression on me.  I visited him at his home in Orel, south of Moscow and my account of Alex is based in part on this remarkable man.  Georgi was one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.

The importance of home runs through the novel, and both Helene and Roz feel strongly about their childhood homes.  Was this a theme you consciously wanted to include?

I hadn't notice this point until after the book was written.  I think at one level the book is all about home.  It starts with a dismantling of a home - Roz's family home after her mother's death - and that sense of homelessness, of packing cases, of shifting from one place to the next and ultimately of exile - in Helene's case.  What homes there are in the novel are chilly places - the Vicarage, for example, or Roz's lonely flat with its ready-made suppers and Antoine's minimalist apartment.  War destroys homes, it displaces people, as Alex story testifies.  He has finally found his way home, but it's a monastic seclusion.  There is only one happy home - that of Jim's in France.  But it's only now that I am aware of how the theme flows throughout the novel.  

There is a significant twist at the end of the novel, in addition to finding out who Roz's father is.  Did you always intend to shock the reader with this from the outset of writing the novel?

Of course not!  When I start writing, I susally don't have any idea of what the next hour will entail, let alone the day: I don't plan novels.  I write and then I go back and tidy them up to make sure that the plot is coherent.  I wrote this novel several times - once in 1999, again in 2003 and then in 2017 and every time the ending was different.  This last ending came to me suddenly when I was in the middle of re-writing so I wrote it out and then had to make sure that the novel fitted together.  I don't want to spoil the ending but my hope is that it pulls the rug from under the reader, yet again, just when they thought that they had reached solid ground, as it were.  

Ahh, you thought you understood these characters...but you didn't...and perhaps how could you ever?

Roz, the efficient lawyer may be clever, determined and brave, but ultimately there will always be secrets in the lives of the dead, which are beyond our reach.

Treat yourself to a copy of 'Island Song' here!

Read a preview here

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