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September Book Club Choice

The September Garden by Catherine Law

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A dramatic war-time story which transports the reader to London during the Blitz, to Occupied France, and to the rolling Chiltern hills of Buckinghamshire. It is the story of two cousins who, as squabbling rivals, are thrown together by the outbreak of war.
Sylvie, marooned in England has left her parents behind in Nazi-occupied Normandy. Whilst she hides her distress behind a wall of bitterness, Nell has her own problems watching the slow crumbling of her parents' marriage, As the war rages on around them, the competition and jealousy between the cousins battles on – especially when they fall in love with the same man. But the machinations of war change the course of all their lives, with devastating consequences. And whilst Sylvie continues to hurt those who love her and to hide her pain behind her tough facade, Nell can only find solace in the September Garden - the walled garden that her father tended so lovingly before he left. This is the only place she feels safe in, to where she is always drawn, and where she decides to hide her most dreadful secret...

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Author Q&A

Q. Who did you most enjoy writing about as a character, Nell or Sylvie?
F.D., Bucks

A. I actually enjoyed writing about them both, as they were so interesting to explore and develop. Nell had quite a straightforward journey, while Sylvie was more complicated and I felt as if I didn't know what she was going to do next! The beauty of writing is that I often know as much about what is going to happen as the reader does at the beginning of the book. I tried to make both Nell and Sylvie as rounded as possible, with both 'good' and 'bad' characteristics that don't manifest obviously until the end of the story. I particularly like creating rather conventional middle class young women who react to a traumatic situation and do something shocking and \'out of character'- as with Rose Pepper in A Season of Leaves. I enjoyed writing about them all, but I'd say I am most fond of Nell.

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Q. As a reader, I am a particular fan of stories set in the wartime era. Why do you feel the war continues to inspire novelists?
Margaret Saville, Eastbourne

A. I think it's because the Second World War is still in many of our living memories, and for me, that era is full of the extraordinary things that ordinary people did. I'm sure every family has a parent or grandparent who has a story to tell. I'm more interested in the human side of things, particuarly on the Home Front, than the strategy of warfare, but of course must do my research to make sure everything that happens is in context. For many people the war was a time of liberation, especially for women, with the feeling that anything could happen and that you must make the most of life. I'm sure this time brought out the best - and worst - in people, and so is a great hunting ground for amazing stories. It\'s hard to depict events when I obviously have no experience of what it was like to be there, but I use my imagination as best I can. Reading first-hand accounts is crucial to get inside (at least one side of) the truth of what happened.

Q. I’malways intrigued to know what sparked the author to write a particular nove. What was your initial thought, the starting point, from which you developed The September Garden. Was it the concept of the garden? The characters? The wartime setting?
C. Benton, Norfolk

A. The first spark for this story came when I found the Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont in a second-hand bookshop. This first-hand account of this lady set me off on the idea of a person living in Normandy during the Occupation and subsequent Allied invasion, but I needed to link it back to England, as I wanted to set the main part of the story here. This is when I invented the two cousins who would have spent holidays in each other\'s houses. So in a way it was the characters and the war-time setting working together that came first. The garden, then, is last in the list. I wanted a 'place of safety' in the novel where Nell would always return and which was significant as the place her father left and abandoned - symbolic for her. I love the idea of a walled, secret garden, and one day I was writing in my attic which overlooks beautiful allotments at the back of my house. It was September and the sunlight was golden over the gorgeous end-of-summer flowers. That was the spark for the garden, something that perhaps only comes into its own for a short spell of time once a year. The September Garden became the theme around which the story could unfold, and return to.

Q. How much research and what kind of research did you carry out for this novel?
Clara Moreton, London

A. I did a great deal of research because I am always determined to create an authentic setting, with authentic voices, everyday situations and sequence of events. I was very conscious that we now perhaps know a lot more of what went on in the war than those living through it at the time. Therefore, I knew that newspaper headlines were the best way to make sure I did not fall down on this. So I borrowed a massive set of part-works called Images of War, The Real Story of the Second World War, which took me through the whole period via the newspaper reports of the day. I also spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London (a fascinating and moving place), and read many books: accounts written at the time and biographies, again to get a feel for the era and simple things such as the way people spoke and how they dressed and behaved. I also set off to Normandy for a short trip because, before writing about anything or anywhere, I have to see it with my own eyes. This trip also proved very fruitful for I stumbled across the atmospheric stables (with the names of the horses on little signs above them) which appear in the novel. With my third novel, The Flower Book (set in the First World War), I did a fascinating and rather traumatic tour of the Western Front, and for A Season of Leaves, my first novel, I visited Prague twice - I can't complain about that!

Q. Do you have your own kind of September Garden - a place you particularly cherish, or where you go for comfort or inspiration?
G. Donaghue

A. What a lovely question... but I actually don\'t have a particular place that I return to. My inspiration comes from the outside world, things I see from a train window, a snatch of a song, or conversations I overhear - and then my imagination starts to work. However, last summer when I was writing The September Garden I took myself off to a cottage in Cornwall, near Polperro, and spent five days by myself to write. I walked through quiet pinewoods and relaxed at a little deserted cove. It was a brave and refreshing thing for me to do and I got a great deal of writing done - I also found the spark for my third novel. As for comfort, I often return to favourite novels and re-read them. This gives me confidence and the motivation to carry on.


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