1. The book took four years of research!
The research for this novel was arduous! I was working full-time, teaching and writing my PhD whilst writing this novel, and I can’t quite believe that I ever managed to do it! Yet, it was a story that compelled retelling and I almost felt quite bereft when I finished it as it had been part of my life for so long.
2. It is inspired by my grandfather’s own story
My Polish grandfather was forced into the German army as a young man. He managed to escape to England and joined the Polish forces in exile. He never spoke of his time in the German army, perhaps through shame or trauma, but it was a story that begged me to investigate it and try to find out what happened to over a quarter of a million Polish boys and men.
3. It is a historiographic metafiction combined with the mode of a memory novel
Quite a mouthful, I know! But this specific genre of historical fiction allows for the novel to be aware of what it did not know, what it could not tell a reader. I was re-imaging a past that by all accounts was hazy around the edges, and in some parts completely silent, filling in those blanks as I went with fiction and memory. It, in effect, draws attention to its fictitiousness, involving the reader in a game of make-believe that is always a fantasy, even if in fantasy we find some form of historical reality.
The past cannot be told in just one narrative any more than the entire world can be viewed through just one lens pointed at just one angle. In The Rainbow, I sought to present a reality constructed not only of what is remembered of the past, but of what is forgotten – I wanted to bridge the gap between this hidden reality and our available, fact-based history.
4. Polish stories tend to get side-lined
I was amazed during the research for this novel that it had never really been written about before. In The Rainbow I sought to reclaim a relatively unexplored story of a quarter of a million Polish boys forced into the German army. This is a story largely hidden to (or perhaps by) mainstream history; it is not the story of the victor, or of the defeated; it is an in-between sort of story, more about people and less about politics, and one which has as yet been underserved by historical record. In so researching this area of history, I found that it was my relationship to history that held the key – a sense of guardianship for a past that whilst not my own, was one that needed a voice to speak on its behalf. This journey began with research that led me to find that knowledge about Poles in the German Wehrmacht had been slowly surfacing, starting in 2005, during Polish presidential elections, when PiS, the nationalist party, accused a liberal candidate of having a Wehrmacht grandfather. The ‘ghosts’ of these boys, of their family and progeny, felt restless; and I think compelled an account of their experiences.
5. It became part of my PhD research
The story of my grandfather had haunted me for years; always imploring me to look for answers. It was when I finished my Master’s degree that I decided that it would be a good research project for my PhD – I could research and write the novel and academically investigate the idea of responsibility to historical fiction.
6. It fictionalises my own investigative journey
Our present day narrator, Isla, takes similar steps to try and uncover her grandfather’s past. The trains she took, places she visited, the obstacles to finding historical fact, became an authentic account, blended with other fictitious characters and their journeys and pasts, to enable some of Isla’s fact-finding truths to become apparent. For example, her visit to Poznań, what she sees and hears, is based on a journey I myself undertook. However, the historical facts that I uncovered during my time there are told through other characters’ narrations to Isla, blended between his fictitious life and those truths which exist in the historical domain.
7. It plays with memory, dementia and fiction
The Rainbow is an enactment of the fraught process of reclaiming the past, through personal, familial, and shared memory. I do not seek to lend memories an air of authority; I want my reader to feel the discomfort of this reclamation project. We follow my protagonist, Isla, as she investigates her grandfather’s past, seeking to reconcile the various distortions that separate personal memory, familial memory (true, false, and fictive) and her conception of collective memory. Through her efforts, Isla does not discover objective history, but rather constructs a ‘new subjective history’ which the reader is privy to; objectively, this new history is an untold history – one populated by the ghostly voices of Polish boys conscripted into the German army, but it is also a very personal history – one that we only discover through Isla.
The Far Away Girl took twenty years to write! I first started it in the year 2000, as part of a contract for HarperCollins. But my then editor didn’t want a book set in Guyana, and made me cart my characters – very improbably! – over to India. It was published as the novel Peacocks Dancing, which I felt was just wrong. That book is long out of print, thank goodness. However, these two books have almost the same beginning! My current publisher Bookouture allowed me to finish that story the way it was meant to be finished, resulting in The Far Away Girl. I’m hoping to prove my first publisher wrong, who said that readers would not be interested in a country in South America (Guyana) they’d never heard of...