My new novel, The House on the Edge of the Cliff, is set, or predominantly set, in the South of France. Think cobalt skies, lapping waves, a rocky coastline, an epic love story that survives decades in spite of dark secrets eroding its optimism. The idea for the novel crystallised when I was driving along the coast from our home overlooking the Bay of Cannes to Marseille. We took a wrong turn and found ourselves in an area I had not visited before, Les Calanques, which translates as The Creeks. Mile after mile of glorious sweeping landscape. The views, the drops to the sea, from the cliffs’ edges were dramatic, seductive and dangerous. The rich blue Mediterranean beckoned. This is an ancient, unspoilt landscape with limestone rocks that plunge deep beneath the water’s surface creating underwater caves and swirling currents. It was the perfect setting for my story in gestation.
I have lived in the South of France for almost thirty-five years. I came here as a thirty-something actress having fallen in love with a French television producer who proposed to me in Sydney on our first date. I did not immediately accept Michel’s offer but, back in Europe, we embarked on a wonderfully extravagant love affair that was played out, back and forth, across La Manche. One weekend, Paris, and the next, London in my scruffy old Kentish Town flat.
I have written about this heady romance, which resulted in our marriage and a very dramatic sea-change for me, in my series of memoirs known collectively as The Olive Farm books. No need to go over that ground again here. Suffice to say that within months of our first meeting in Australia we were in Cannes for the film festival and found ourselves – recklessly, imprudently – putting in an offer on an abandoned olive farm with its crumbling villa and ivy-infested, sinking swimming pool. A property we could neither afford nor had we the means or skills to resuscitate. At that stage, I dreamed of renovating it as a holiday home in a land of forever blue skies, where I could chill out in between my film and TV commitments. Never, in my wildest dreams, was I thinking of relocation.
However, love, landscape, destiny, Fate – call it what you will – had other plans for me.
Once purchased, we had not a bean remaining to invest in our charming ruin. Stony broke, we sat staring at an empty pool while scorching in high summer temperatures. We cooked on the cheapest barbecue, one that Michel had spotted for twenty-five francs at a local hypermarché yet we were as happy as carefree children in this glorious overgrown kingdom of ours. Aside from enjoying the fruits of being insanely in love, what else was there to do but begin to discover the nature, the local foods, the indigenous plants, the history of the region. I read, I wrote, I went walking, we visited museums. I hiked down to the beach every morning for a dip, and the use of the municipality’s free showers. At that stage, we had no water nor electricity up at our Olive Farm.
A situation that might have proved frustrating became a daily adventure. Hour after hour of new discoveries. Who knew that it is the law here in France for every village to supply at least one source of free drinking water? We availed ourselves liberally of this national hospitality. Every morning we descended on foot to fill two twenty-litre canisters from the village’s flowing fountain and climbed them back up the mountainside to provide us with water for cooking and washing.
We painted the shutters of our shabby old house blue and turquoise, echoing the sea and sky. I was learning to see colours, to take photographs. To look at the world through unfiltered eyes as I hope Grace, my protagonist in The House on the Edge of the Cliff, learns to do.
To trust in the redeeming power of love.
After almost three years of proprietorship, Michel and I had earned sufficient funds to cut back our ten acres of impenetrable jungle. I will never forget the day we arrived back down here – because we weren’t living here in those days and had commissioned the work to be achieved during our absence – and stood at the foot of our hillside, side by side, in awed silence, staring upwards at a parcel of steep land that had not seen the sun in more than a decade. The earth was laid bare; the many features of the hill exposed. Sixty-eight olive trees, several of them centuries old, had been revealed, growing in statuesque glory even if desperately in need of pruning, along a layered hillside of dry-stone walled terraces. ‘En restanque’ is the term for such terracing here in Provence. Today, I know that it is the oldest form of Mediterranean irrigation.
This was a Road to Damascus moment for me in more ways than one because I was later to circumnavigate the entire Mediterranean – eastern basin followed by western shores - in my search for the history and long-buried secrets of the olive tree. Olive oil is, after all, the cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine. This mythical tree is the thread from which the tapestry of the Med has been woven.
But that was all still to come.
What that April morning, standing alongside the man who was now my partner, revealed to me was that I had come home. Not simply to the house we were intent upon restoring but I had found my spiritual place in the world. I think I can safely claim that until I met Michel, until I embarked on this new direction in my life, which did not exclude past chapters but wove them into the fabric of what was becoming a new Carol, until then, in spite of a certain degree of success and fame as an actress, I had been a lost, a broken soul.
Insanity, you might scoff, to claim that a species of tree, a patch of land, a few balustrades, bricks and mortar, could effectively give back to a damaged heart a signpost, a reason to survive. But I stand by this. The healing power of the natural world.
Everything I have written since is imbued with the scents, the textures, the colours, the tastes, the history of the Mediterranean.
What has any of this to do in particular with my new novel, The House on the Edge of the Cliff, you might ask? Plenty.
Grace is sixteen years old when we first meet her in Paris. She dreams of adventure, of becoming a famous actress. Her head is full of film images. Movie stars are her role models as they were once mine. Within a few hours of stepping foot into the capital, Grace meets Peter, an English student at the Sorbonne. It is 1968, the year of the Paris student uprising. Grace, along with Peter, finds herself swept up and carried along by the fire and fervour of the revolution. It is thrilling, exhilarating, until it begins to spin out of control due to police intervention and the outcome, for Grace, is traumatic. She is a damaged heart and cannot abide the violence. She flees the city with Peter at her side. He takes her south to his aunt Agatha’s astonishing house – full of artistry, light, colour and set on a cliff, offering Grace a bird’s eye view of the spectacular beaches and coves known as Les Calanques. This area, close to Marseille, is a National Heritage Site.
Grace gazes upon this magical house and its rocky landscape lapped by waves and, without understanding how it could ever come to pass, she senses, perhaps as I had at our Olive Farm, that a core place within her – long-buried to better protect herself against hurt - has been touched. A knot begins to disentangle. Possibly for the first time in her young life, Grace is standing face to face, immersed within, a raw and phenomenal beauty. Her emotions are beyond her comprehension but the moment lights her up and it stays with her.
It is as though the nature around her is bidding her to tarry awhile, offering to heal her.
Of course, she is young, carefree and callow. Mistakes are made. Choices are made by Grace during that summer of ’68 that shape her destiny irrevocably. A random encounter – what seems like a harmless dalliance – draws a shadow over her summer.
The House on the Edge of the Cliff spans five decades, from ’68 to the present. Grace achieves her acting dreams, but...memories haunt her. The washing of waves against a windswept beach. A figure by moonlight at the water’s edge. A sunlit room in summer in a house high above the shoreline. These images never let her be. Grace has a long and frequently lonely road to travel before she finds her way back ‘home’, to her heart, to this coastline where beauty and harmony reign.