The Amber Heart: a Big, Sexy, Old-Fashioned Historical Romance?

Cover art by Claire Maclean

The novel has been called all the above things at one time or another. It's certainly a love story and it's certainly a historical novel. Set in 19th Century Poland, The Amber Heart is the passionate (and at times explicit) love story of two people whose lives will be inextricably and hopelessly entwined.

Maryanna Diduska is the spoilt only daughter of a wealthy Polish landowner. Piotro Bandura is the son of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian peasant. Their paths should never cross. But fate has other ideas.

In one sense at least, the armies of traditional publishers who were wary of acquiring The Amber Heart were perfectly right.  I had no idea just how firmly the notion of Poland as a grim ex-communist concrete jungle, famous only for exporting plumbers and plasterers to the UK, had become so firmly rooted in the national consciousness.The big publishers, so market oriented, were all too well aware of it, and although I could paper a wall with fabulous rave rejections - I love this, it made me cry, I stayed up all night reading it, what a wonderful book - nobody would actually take it on. A string of editors told my agent that, much as they, personally, liked it, they had no idea how to market it, and perhaps they had a point.  But this is neither a complaint nor a rant - just an explanation of sorts.

You see my perception of Poland was different. For me, throughout my childhood, it seemed like a romantic other-worldly place, as remote and magical as a land in a fairytale. The fact that my visions were just as skewed in their own way - that the truth lay somewhere between the two -  is neither here not there, because we're talking about inspiration here: that impulse to tell a story and what lay behind it.


My late father had almost literally been Prince Charming to my mum's post war Yorkshire Cinderella. One day I'll bring the Amber Heart up to date by telling their story but for now, this will have to do.
My dad, looking a bit girly, with his parents at Dziedzilow
My dark and handsome dad had been born into a certain amount of privilege, much like Maryanna in my story, but he lost everything in the war. After a dangerous time as a young courier for the Resistance, followed by a spell in a German prison camp, he came to Helmsley in Yorkshire with a Polish tank unit, part of the British army. That first wave of Poles inspired a certain amount of prejudice, even then. After he was demobbed, he went to Leeds where he worked in a mill as a textile presser. He also met my mum at a dance. He was thin and pale and faintly heroic. She had a cold sore on her lip and her hair was tied back with a bootlace but they maintained that it was love at first sight. I suspect it was - and for both of them, it would last a lifetime. 

My Aunt Vera, dad, my mum, Kathleen on the right, and myself in the sun hat.
In truth, they were a handsome couple. She was pretty. He was exotic and charming. He kissed her hand and clicked his heels together when they met. Even his accent was deeply attractive. She had never met anyone quite like him in sooty Holbeck where she lived, the youngest - also spoilt - daughter of a big family. Her father worked in a tailoring factory and sold maggots to fishermen for bait in his spare time. Her Irish mother ran a tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop whose main customers were the factory workers who passed by morning and evening.  If this reads like a family saga, it's because it is.
Me, in pale blue organdie.

Growing up
Fortunately, my dad turned out to be as lovely as his manners. He was creative, kindly, and clever. They married and by the time I was born, he was attending night school so that he could get out of the mill. At his retiral, he was a distinguished research biochemist who had travelled the world as an expert adviser for Unido. But back then, I think he was just relieved to be alive and in a reasonably peaceful place.
He didn't say much about his wartime experiences, but what he did say was harrowing. And for quite a while, he wasn't well: thin and grey faced and somehow attenuated. Now, I can see that it must have been a reaction to everything that had happened to him. Back then, I was worried about him, as even young children can be - vaguely and without really knowing why.


I remember being carried on his shoulders, and touching his black curls. I remember him telling me stories and teaching me to draw and taking me off into the countryside around Leeds every weekend, to show me things: a wasps' nest, a grass snake, flowers, birds, trees. I remember going to some church event with mum and dad and dancing with him, proudly, like a grown-up. I wore an organdie dress with little blue rosebuds and had my hair up. I stood on his feet and he waltzed me around in time to the music. 

The Poland he told me about was - of course - the rural Eastern Poland of his childhood, a place called Dziedzilow. This was by no means an idyllic place, beset as it was by bloody battles, constant border skirmishes and the occasional massacre. And my grandparents' marriage was not a happy one either, in spite of their comparative affluence. But I think dad had a happy childhood all the same, because the Poland he described for me, weaving countless stories, was as strange and foreign and magical as a place in a fairytale. I recognised it for what it was, the first time I encountered Housman's poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

For dad, surely, Dziedzilow (I call it Lisko in the book - you can understand why, can't you?) was the land of lost content where he knew he could never come again. He was never bitter, tucking the memories away inside him, just happy to have survived.
Dad with goat.

And of course writers do come there again in their imaginations. I mined my father's experiences when I was writing the Amber Heart as surely as he had once mined his memories for his little daughter. Oh, I did a lot of other research besides. A truly prodigous amount, most of which simply informs the story, rather than being inserted into it. But it was my dad's voice I went back to time and again when I wanted to feel how it might have been. I went visiting with him in my imagination, and there it was. I could see it, smell it, touch it. Dad died back in 1995 but I still feel the connection sometimes. I felt it especially when I was writing this novel.

Wojciech Kossak, one of my forebears, painted this. Another inspiration for me.
Reviewing The Amber Heart for the Indie eBook Review, Cally Phillips says 'There is passion, brutality and deep emotion on display as we are whisked through the nineteenth century and the long lives and deaths of a panoply of characters.'

As an adult, I came to realise that the passion and the brutality were always there, a muted subtext to so many of the stories (as they are in so many 'fairy stories') changed and transformed by my gentle dad to delight his little Kasia - my Polish name. I was never disturbed by them, but I think I recognised the deep emotion and the vivid memories that lay behind them. I think many of them have found their way into the Amber Heart which begins a hundred years before my father was even born. In a way, I think that those editors were right. It probably is a big, sexy, old fashioned historical romance. With a setting which may not be immediately popular. But still, it's quite a story. It'll be free on Kindle, here in the UK and here in the USA, on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd August 2012. Why not give it a try?

Dad with student.





Comments

Bill Kirton said…
I already have it and this pushes it way up the TBR list. A lovely post, Catherine, and your love for your dad still shines powerfully. (BTW, little need to identify which one in the photo is your mum. The resemblance is stunning.)
The publishers' comments are baffling, aren't they? Presumably there's a corollary 'This is unadulterated crap. I couldn't get beyond the first page. The contract is in the post.'
Kathleen Jones said…
Read it and loved it Catherine. I always enjoy well written family sagas. And the Polish setting was wonderful - very original and beautifully described. I've just come back from Poland and was delighted to find that there are bears in the woods - and wolves!!!
Thanks, Bill and Kathleen. Yes - my mum and I looked alike and Charles too now. Sometimes when I look at photos of mum when she was young, and Charles when he was a baby, the resemblance is quite uncanny. Must be strong genes!
Bears and bison too, Kathleen. They make this amazing 'bison grass' vodka that's so aromatic it's like drinking a hayfield.