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How a brush with death helped inspire Rose Tremain’s new novel

Over a decades-long career, Rose Tremain has spanned continents and centuries with her novels. Her latest, Lily, helped her heal from life-saving surgery. 

Arwa Haider

The fate of Lily, the focal character of Rose Tremain’s latest novel, seems precarious from her earliest hours. Abandoned by her mother in a London park in 1850, newborn Lily is saved by young policeman Sam Trench, who carries her to the city’s Foundling Hospital (built in real life by 18th-century philanthropist Thomas Coram). Lily’s story is one of fleeting kindness, institutional cruelty, breathless possibilities, and – as a young woman reunited with Sam – volatile desires; it is also, as the book’s subtitle notes: a tale of revenge.

“Having written Islands Of Mercy,” she continues, referring to her previous novel, which transported the reader from Bath to Borneo in the 19th-century, “I also had a head-full of research on Victorian society; the plight of children in that era and the awful deprivation suffered by the poor seemed to be something that tallied with this.”

This isn’t the first time that Tremain has merged modern commentary and period detail. Her celebrated novel Restoration (1989) portrayed the decadent reign of Charles II – and the misadventures of her rambunctious anti-hero Robert Merivel – as a response to 1980s Western materialism. Restoration also inspired an Oscar-winning 1995 film adaptation, starring Robert Downey Jr and Ian McKellen. “Rather the same thing has happened with Lily: taking something which is very negative in our world, and finding the means to express that in a different era,” she says.

Lily’s experiences are related with a crucial sensitivity but also incredible vivacity, evoking disparate places and people: the Suffolk farm where she is briefly fostered by a kindly family; the supposedly benevolent Foundling Hospital (and its monstrously sadistic Nurse Maud) where she is forced to return aged five; the Wig Emporium where she later works for the wonderfully libertine Belle Prettywood; and the pensive gaze of Sam Trench, who has kept a distanced watch.

She adds that Lily’s progress never felt rigidly sealed: “I’m not a great forward-planner,” she admits. “I think novels succeed best when they’re a kind of journey for the author. The only thing I was absolutely certain about from the start was that Lily would be a really robust little spirit, although I wasn’t certain initially how her courage would show itself, or how her relationship with Sam was going to go. There had to be this terrible irony at the core, that the policeman who saves her could be the one who condemns her to death.”

Victorian London is rendered with rich nuance and grim precision in Lily (in the opening pages, even wild animals are intrigued by the “complicated stink” of the metropolis). It’s not the only time that London has emerged as a dislocated and seedy setting in Tremain’s stories; in Restoration, it is both wanton playground and fiery hell; in The Road Home (2007), we view modern London from the perspective of eastern European immigrant Lev: its potential for renewal, and its bleak chasm between social classes. I wonder how these depictions reflect Tremain’s own relationship with the city.

“I think I’m completely schizophrenic about London,” she laughs. “I grew up in this very grimy 1950s post-war London, but I was also very attached to it. When I was 10, my family split up, my mother married again, and we went to live in the country. I think I’m completely torn between wanting the things that a country life can offer, but also liking London hugely, still having a place and many friends there. Now, I think the balance of my life is right. I live not far from Norwich, but it’s very quiet; I look forward to going to London – and then I look forward to getting back!”

'I realised something that I still really appreciate: that being immersed in a new story just takes me so marvellously outside myself, even if I’ve got ongoing worries'

As a child, following her parents’ split, Tremain and her sister had been sent to boarding school in Hertfordshire; newly isolated her writing began to take flight. “My world had collapsed, and I thought, what I need to do is not write a ‘poor old me’ story… so I started writing plays about mermaids and circuses, completely different things,” she says. “I realised something that I still really appreciate: that being immersed in a new story just takes me so marvellously outside myself, even if I’ve got ongoing worries. It was a method of recovery for me. What I would say to kids of that age is: try to find stories outside your experience: research them, or dream them; entrance yourself.”

As a student, Tremain would enrol at the Sorbonne (she still cherishes Paris, which she sees as “part of my DNA”); as a young writer and teacher, she would return to London, before moving to a rural home with her then-husband and infant daughter – decades later, this setting would inspire Lily’s fictional foster home, Rookery Farm.

“If someone made a study of my fiction, I suspect that they’d find a lot of me, my habits and longings,” she murmurs. “But apart from my little memoir [she’s referring to her searingly candid 2018 work Rosie: Scenes From A Vanished Life], they wouldn’t find much of my life.”

Tremain’s natural curiosity and love of travel seem directly channelled into her fictional narratives. Many of her characters, including Lily, also seem to be in a state of exile – enforced, or self-imposed. “The idea of absolute separation from all the things that constitute your life is quite frightening to me,” she says. “I suffer a lot from dreams of being lost in some way; I do have a weird ability to get lost going around the block in real life.”

'I could reconstruct my whole life as a continuous journey, always returning again'

She recalls visiting Berlin in November 1989, exactly when the Wall fell, and finding herself “in a perpetual state of lostness”; she wandered from Checkpoint Charlie into a hazy Alexanderplatz. This experience would inform her 2005 short story ‘The Beauty Of The Dawn Shift’, about a former DDR watchtower guard who treks eastwards after the collapse of Communism, adrift “in a moral and an absolute sense”.

“I could reconstruct my whole life as a continuous journey, always returning again,” she says. “Travelling marvellously brings forth a story or even a book, but for the moment I feel like I want to stay put; I think it’s something to do with having been ill, but I don’t want to risk being miles away. I suppose my happiest place is exactly where I am: at my desk, looking out at the garden.”

Lily’s powerful closing scene is followed by the book’s real-life dedication to Mr Siong-Seng Liau, the Consultant Surgeon who Tremain credits with saving her life in 2019, when she was seriously ill with pancreatic cancer. It is a heartfelt, humbling end-note.

“It makes me quite emotional to talk about him; he’s an incredibly courteous, sensitive man: an angel, really,” she says. “I owe him a lot, because he not only did a fantastically neat and clever job with a very dangerous operation, but he also helped me to come out of non-recuperation and get strong enough to get home. I put my faith in him, and it was well placed.”

'At the moment, I feel fine. Part of the healing process was being able to write Lily'

Post-recovery, her memories of hospital are fragmented yet gruelling; she mentions how she became unable to eat and dangerously underweight, and how her co-ordination was so shot that she struggled to sign her name.

“I think as a result of that, I feel a bit panicky about the times that I’m not working; that’s when I tend to remember that this cancer could come back at any time,” she says. “At the moment, I feel fine. Part of the healing process was being able to write Lily.”

She continues to create across realms. Having read to her own grandchildren for years, she’s written an upcoming story for youngsters, Iron Robin (her first children’s book since 1985’s Journey To The Volcano), featuring Richard Jones’s beguiling illustrations. A film adaptation of her 2016 novel The Gustav Sonata (an ode to friendship, set in post-WWII Switzerland) is also in development. Does Tremain still consider writing as a recovery process, or is it rebellion, or something else entirely?

“I think it’s an ongoing enquiry. Martin Amis once said that if he wasn’t a writer, he would find life rather thin, and I totally agree with that. In a sense, writers live life 10 times over; every aspect of your life is drawn on and turned into something else. So, the ongoing conversation is what it is,” she decides. “And I don’t think that conversation is quite finished yet.”

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Image: David Kirkham

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