Sometimes a novel can be borne out of a place, and a sense of place is integral to Anne Booth’s latest children’s novel, Across the Divide. Set in Lindisfarne, it conjures a beautiful landscape of sea and sealife, of the wild windswept coastline and the buildings that dwell there. But it’s also a book about protest and opinion, about our current preoccupation with argument and disagreement.
Olivia lives with her mum and grandparents, but when her school opens an army cadets unit, it causes a rift within her group of friends and within her family. Caught between pacifists and those who support the army cadets, Olivia finds it hard to pick a side, seeing arguments for both. Then, her mother is jailed for leading a pacifist protest, and Olivia is taken to Lindisfarne to spend time with her father, a historian. But there’s more on the island than she bargained for – and history seems to come alive and give her an insight into her present.
This is a gently powerful novel about expressing differences of opinion, about peace and warfare, about the lessons history can teach, and the diplomacy involved in maintaining friendships. Expressed with forceful persuasion, Booth argues for tolerance and hope through this latest book, and her inspiration, drawn from Testament of Youth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jo Cox, shines through. It’s an intriguing novel for our times, seeking ways to show how to manage different family situations, how to navigate friendships when opinions differ, and how to compromise. Olivia is a conflicted, well-drawn character, who speaks both to our zeitgeist but also to the timelessness of adolescence as she finds out the sort of person she is – influenced with bits from all her friends and both her very different parents. But most particularly, the setting of Lindisfarne resonates loudly. The detail is meticulous, as Booth describes not only the sea crashing against the coastline, but also the waves the wider world is making on Olivia’s landscape. Here, Anne Booth explains:
I first fell in love with Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, on a visit over 25 years ago. It is a beautiful island based off the Northumbrian coast, near to the border between England and Scotland, and I have returned many times since. It’s very special staying there once the tide has come in, the busy crowds of day visitors have gone and Lindisfarne is cut off from the mainland. I love the bustle of the tourists and its little shops and cafés and pubs, but even more I love its amazing bird life, the curious seals watching from the sea, and the loveliness of the coastline, dunes and countryside. I’ve always wanted to write a story based there.
I love Lindisfarne’s rich history too, and the fact that the learning and work of the Christian monks in Lindisfarne Abbey made this small place become a major centre of culture in the western medieval Christian world. The Lindisfarne Gospels were made there, and English Heritage still look after the Abbey ruins and have a fascinating visitor centre today. It is still a deeply spiritual place, where people still come on pilgrimage, in groups or alone, remembering the Celtic saints associated with the island, like Saint Cuthbert or Saint Aidan. People call it a ‘thin’ place, where past and present are very close.
It is also a place which is inextricably linked with warfare – from the brutal Viking raids which destroyed the peaceful monastery, to the castle dominating the skyline as you drive over to the island. On many family holidays on Lindisfarne we stayed in a house whose cellars had once been part of the garrison, and we walked up the hill to the castle, now owned by The National Trust. The castle was originally an Elizabethan garrison and housed soldiers intermittently for years until passed to the coastguard for occasional use in 1893. It fell into disrepair but, in 1901 Edward Hudson, the American owner of the magazine Country Life, decided to buy and restore it. He asked the famous architect Edwin Lutyens to redesign it so that it could be used as a summer residence. Edwin Lutyens then also asked the famous Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll to create a garden for the castle’s visitors, a tranquil, walled spot, sheltered from the Northumbrian winds, away from, but in sight of the castle.
As we visited the castle and garden and saw the rooms reconstructed to look exactly as Edward Hudson and his many visitors would have found them, we were encouraged to imagine what life would have been like there in Edwardian times. When I then read in the National Trust leaflet about a boy called Billy Congreve, the son of Edward Hudson’s friends, who came to stay in the castle to recover after a serious illness, and later went off to fight in the First World War, I had my first ideas for the story which would become Across the Divide.
Across the Divide by Anne Booth is out now in paperback (£6.99, Catnip Publishing). You can buy it here.
Follow Anne Booth @Bridgeanne and Catnip @catnipbooks for more information