Vanessa Lafaye's new novel tells of a woman's struggle against violent racism - Vanessa too has a major struggle to confront
Vanessa Lafaye lives in Marlborough with her husband, founded the town's Community Choir - and writes novels. Her first published novel, Summertime, was a run away success - described as 'a cracking first novel', it was chosen as a Richard and Judy Book Club title: "It sold a lot."
Now she has published her second novel - At First Light. Like Summertime it is based around a true and terrible story and is set in Florida (where she was brought up.)
We meet again one of Summertime's key characters. Dwayne Campbell is middle aged in Summertime, now in At First Light we find him first as a youth and then as an old man.
The two novels can be read separately or in sequence. Summertime is set in the 1935 - the year of the great hurricane - with the results of the First World War still a very strong influence on events. At First Light is largely set in 1918 - the year of the great flu pandemic - when memories of the war were very raw and evidence of its effects even more powerful.
At the dark heart of Summertime is a public lynching. At the dark heart of At First Light are the tentacles of the Ku Klux Klan as they threaten and then attack the mixed community of Key West.
In confronting head on the endemic and gross racism of the American South, the book has deep and troubling resonance with current events - with the Trump Presidency and to a lesser degree with post Referendum Britain. Vanessa Lafaye told me she wrote this novel before the American election campaign began and it was in production by the time of Britain's EU Referendum:
"It became horribly topical as time went on - much more so than I expected. When the KKK endorsed Trump he did not distance himself from them. The KKK message is like terrorist organisations' methods - they promise you can be part of a movement and this will make you powerful."
"One of the most eye-opening things from my research for At First Light was how much emphasis the KKK put on Jews and Catholics. Their idea was to 'Take America back for the real Americans' - their idea was to make America only for white protestants - full stop."
The book tells the story of Alicia Cortez who has to flee - with her 'brown' skin - from her Cuban home to Key West and how she is taken in by her aunt who runs the Tea Room - which turns out to be a brothel.
The horrors of violent racism are entwined with the horrors of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which kills Alicia's aunt. She inherits the brothel and decides to run it her way. She surprises herself by falling in love with a war-damaged man of honour John Morales.
Alicia is based on a real person. But the historical facts were few: "I was free to decide what her background was. I chose Cuba because it was incredibly cosmopolitan and the Florida she landed in was like a frontier town. I liked the reversal of views - with Havana being a glittering jewel and so cultured."
Vanessa says the story on its own was too dark and depressing. It was only when she decided to 'bookend' the story with the modern scenes that it worked - ending with redemption and expiation for terrible wrongs - albeit through a violent act.
Why, I asked, had she chosen At First Light as the title? Her first title had, she said, been much too like a crime or thriller title. At First Light has a First World War ring to it: "It's when they went over the top, when soldiers were executed. It has an historical connotation." She did not want a spuriously uplifting title using words of the 'dawn' or 'sunrise' variety.
Whose idea was it? "Debbie Guest at the White Horse Bookshop thought of it. She advises me a lot. She's invaluable!" The cover - also approved by Debbie Guest - is a triumph: "I wanted to distinguish my work from crime thrillers and from women's fiction."
The cover encapsulates two essential strands of the tale - arrival by sea (Alicia from Cuba and troops back from Europe's war) and being alone (Alicia's lonely fight against prejudice and for her lover.)
Vanessa Lafaye is a successful novelist whose writing career has been interspersed with and interrupted by cancer. She had breast cancer which she thought had been conquered. It returned three months after she signed the contract for Summertime and was treated again.
Then last year she learned that secondary cancers have spread widely. This is secondary breast cancer - it cannot be cured, it can only be managed. As she says in a matter of fact way: "The clock is running..."
Vanessa is calling for more research into drugs to treat secondary cancers and has written a very powerful personal online article for Red Magazine. Please read it and follow the links at the end.
Cancer she says robs you of so much - including control of your own life: "When I lead the community choir, with fifty expectant faces waiting for my instruction, that gives me some feeling of control again." In the meantime she has found a story which she may decide to make the basis of her third novel.