Travelling back in time only to end up in the same place.
When I decided to write the story of Lina Rose, the heroine of The Reckoning, I knew I was pushing boundaries. But I was still, I now realise, remarkably naive about what writing my first historical novel would entail.
Lina Rose is an ageing English author who has come to France to reflect on her husband’s suffering during World War Two. She writes a series of letters to the daughter she abandoned as a baby, hoping her literary skill will lead them both towards an understanding of the choices she made.
Lina was born just after World War One to parents who were indelibly marked by a cataclysmic conflict that was supposed to be the war to end all wars. She then survived her own war, but at a cost. Now, she wonders if the price she paid for that survival – and for the success she subsequently enjoyed – was too high.
Lina’s voice rang clear and true in my head as I started to write but conjuring up the past brought significant challenges, even though I considered myself something of a lay expert because of my decades-long fascination with the world wars.
I am a huge fan of Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker, William Boyd and Chris Cleave, to name but a few writers whose war novels have inspired and humbled me.
For our first wedding anniversary, my husband surprised me with a trip to the battlefields and graveyards around Arromanches-les-Bains in Normandy (an odd choice, you might think, but as Gilbert K. Chesterton said: marriage is an adventure, like going to war). We marvelled at the size of the shell craters still pockmarking the land, and stood silent among the headstones that stretched to the horizon like death’s dominoes.
I have always been most interested in the human cost of war so when I came to write The Reckoning, the question I wanted to explore was: how much can the human spirit endure and what is the cost of that endurance?
Very early on in the process, I read The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. I am indebted to this erudite book, which explores how the conflict was portrayed in literary works of the time, dissecting the myths that shaped people’s view of the war and the myths it later inspired. I treasured Fussell’s nuanced analysis of the imagery and tropes of war literature.
Once finished, I raced ahead with my first draft, convinced I was now ready.
Whenever I stumbled, I told myself: don’t worry about period detail, just write the story and you can fill in the blanks later. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. I found myself unable to move the plot forward because I didn’t know enough about the landscape my characters were moving through.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. What I thought I knew, what I knew I didn’t know and what I didn’t even know I didn’t know were all hurdles that seemed likely to stop me in my tracks. I was desperate to keep the momentum going but I was becoming increasingly frustrated by my knowledge gaps.
I took a break from writing to do some more research. The challenge was knowing when to stop and get those plot engines revving again. For example, I spent hours online one day looking at examples of beautiful trench art, such as shell cases decorated with intricate carvings and made into vases. It was fascinating, and important because of what it told me about how men endure, but it added just four words to the text.
In the end, I developed a scattergun approach to research. Whenever a particular detail had to be verified to allow the plot to advance, I did a little research and then sketched the scene, knowing I could refine it later. First drafts always involve holding one’s nose and accepting the faulty prose as a sow’s ear that will, definitely, one day, be transformed into a silk purse.
Given my central question around human endurance, I was particularly interested in how people felt during the wars. I read novel-length accounts of the lives of women in the military services, eyewitness testimonials unearthed from Hertfordshire websites (part of the book is set in St Albans) and BBC archives. The stories I found were both moving and amazingly matter-of-fact. I looked at a lot of photographs and watched many Pathé videos.
Another key reference for me was the Chronicle of the 20th Century, a huge book that I have carted around with me for 30 years. Published in 1988, I used to lust after it in O’Gormans bookstore on Shop Street in Galway. Eventually, I saved enough to buy my own copy. And so it came to pass, three decades later, that I used it to help me write my third novel.
Apart from the reference books and online resources, something else helped me tackle the challenge of writing about the past: my somewhat dippy view of time.
Take my relationship to 1988, the year I decided I must own the Chronicle:
That year Céline Dion won the Eurovision in Dublin; Galway beat Tipperary in the All-Ireland hurling final; George H. W. Bush was elected president in the United States; Bon Jovi were taking Bad Medicine and Phil Collins was enjoying A Groovy Kind of Love.
It was, as they say, a different country but although I no longer have a fringe or chipmunk cheeks, I am still the same traveller. To me, 1988 was just yesterday and its colours leak into my life today.
Lina Rose says she does not really believe in time as a linear construct. I tend to agree with her. It’s a useful point of view if you are an author writing for the first time about the past. Because in the end, to get the words down, you have to look for the universal.
If Lina is right, and all time is now, running perhaps on parallel tracks, then could emotion be what really matters? It certainly helps to keep that emotional authenticity front-and-centre when you are attempting to write about the past. Everything else is, after all, just detail.
(c) Clár Ní Chonghaile
About The Reckoning:
‘A gorgeous, absorbing tale. The characters’ experiences of loss and their stoic sense of survival brought history to life in a way I had never seen it before… a compelling and captivating story, filled with adventure, love and regret’ Nicola Cassidy, author of December Girl
I have a story to tell you, Diane. It is my story and your story and the story of a century that remade the world. When we reach the end, you will be the ultimate arbiter of whether it was worth your time. You will also sit in judgment on me.
In a cottage in Normandy, Lina Rose is writing to the daughter she abandoned as a baby. Now a successful if enigmatic author, she is determined to trace her family’s history through the two world wars that shaped her life. But Lina can no longer bear to carry her secrets alone, and once the truth is out, can she ever be forgiven?
Chonghaile stuns in her second book for Legend Press weaving a complex narrative covering conflict, secrets, judgement and what it takes to sever family ties.
‘Ní Chonghaile is a writer who knows her subject matter inside out. At times philosophical, in parts emotional, The Reckoning is a great example of how a natural storyteller can take a genre and make it their own’ Daniel Seery, author of A Model Partner
‘Chonghaile has succeeded in writing a moving story about memories, regret, and the ties that bind. Both wise and gentle, The Reckoning is a novel with heart’ Tiffany McDaniel, Not-the-Booker Prizewinning author of The Summer that Melted Everything
‘Clár Ní Chonghaile has done it again… The Reckoning is a novel about family, memory, and the possibility of forgiveness – and it will stay with you long after you have savoured the last page’ Léan Cullinan, author of The Living
Order your copy online here.