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Novel set in Hampshire (A Good Samaritan Story with a twist)

10th March 2016

Hester and Harriet Hilary Spiers, novel set in Hampshire.

As sisters Hester and Harriet are driving out over the Christmas period to visit relations, they spy a young woman hiding with a little baby in a bus shelter. They grind to a halt in their car and before they know it, they have invited her to stay with them, as she looks utterly miserable – and it is after all the season of goodwill. It also means they can turn the car around and go home, back to their cosy abode, and thus avoid their duty visit.

IMG_3488Daria and her son Milo are, it transpires, from Belarus and as the story unfolds they discover that she had to flee her homeland after her father and brother fell foul of the authorities there. This is not the country where hardy peasants in bright ethnic garb and stout boots cultivate the unforgiving soil, it is much bleaker….

Soon to join the party is their nephew, Ben, escaping his parents’ claustrophobic strictures (they were it seems just doing their parental thing). He morphs from a stereotypical grunting teenager into a young man who develops some good cooking skills under the sisters’ tutelage. So, for Hester and Harriet they suddenly have a house full of guests who need succour and food. And that’s what they do best!

But Daria’s nervousness is further heightened when a stranger calls at their door, looking for a mother and young child and soon the sisters are sleuthing away to understand what is going on.

This is an entertaining read set in Hampshire (the environs of Basingstoke to be precise), but specific locale is not an intrinsic feature of the book; yet it is indubitably English, it really couldn’t be set anywhere other than England.

I visualised the sisters with their eager tipples and culinary delights, as simulacrums of the cooks in the TV series Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson, an image ingrained in my imagination that simply would not budge. Or Miriam Margolyes or Rosemary Shrager in the TV show “The Real Marigold Hotel”…. With astutely observed characters, conniptions aplenty (yes, there are lots of unusual words peppering the text!), this novel has a light feel to it. It grazes the darker side of what it means to be a refugee, illustrates the issue of illegal immigration and balances it all with a good dollop of the kindness of strangers.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

And over to author Hilary Spires who happily agreed to answer our questions:

TF: Hester and Harriet are very strong characters. They bring to mind characters like Miriam Margolyes, Clarissa Dickson Wright – idiosyncratic women with a firm sense of self and who know what they like. And generous hearts. What was your inspiration for these no-nonsense women?

HS: My friends! The two doughty sisters are amalgams of many of my friends, all of whom in their different ways, are very much their own women. After a lifetime of experiences, they are in thrall to no-one, and plough their personal furrows with generosity, spirit and pragmatism. Perhaps I am particularly lucky in my friends, but I see Hester and Harriet as typical of a generation whose motto might well be: why not?

TFAt the heart of the novel is the story of Daria and Milo who have fled difficult circumstances in Belarus. Of course a very pertinent subject at the moment with the refugee crisis. How did you research the kind of life awaiting someone who comes to England under such circumstances?

HS: I like to keep abreast of current affairs. Who could fail to be moved by the plight of these thousands of people driven from their homelands by war and deprivation? When I started the novel, the crisis in the Mediterranean was just gathering pace; I wanted to create a situation where someone who had arrived legitimately found themselves falling foul of the authorities thus presenting Hester and Harriet, instinctively law-abiding, with a dilemma. I read numerous first-hand accounts of experiences like Daria’s and was given invaluable advice by the Immigration Advice Service in London, including the warning that the regulations change on an almost daily basis.

TFThis is your first novel. Where do you go from here?

HS: I’m far from finished with Hester and Harriet. They are off on a jaunt (to Italy) next, blithely unaware of all sorts of dark doings back at home. I’m also working on a couple of full-length plays: in common with most of my work, these also feature strong, mature women.

TF: You didn’t start out as a writer but have worked in several different professions. What drew you to writing and how did you go about getting published. Was it a hard journey for you?

HS: I have always written, mainly (self-indulgent) poetry when much younger, then plays and short stories. In fact, writing a novel grew out of a short story featuring Hester and Harriet, coupled with a challenge thrown down by a close writing buddy: write me three chapters a week. Once I got going, I couldn’t stop. I finished the first draft in a few months, sent out sample chapters to a small number of agents, was picked up by the wonderful Jane Gregory who sold H&H to Allen & Unwin. The journey has been long, yes, but I wouldn’t say hard because I’ve always enjoyed serving my apprenticeship, buoyed by enough successes to keep my spirits afloat in a sea of rejections. And working with my editors has been a joy.

TF: The cover is quite eye catching and simple, with an interesting and unusual colour combination. How do you feel about the design yourself, did you have much input?

HS: I’m glad you like it! I was immediately drawn to it when I was sent it for my reaction, partly because I love the colours but also because I felt it had just the right feel for a book that aims to tackle some serious issues with – I hope – humour and warmth.

TF: The book has a very British feel to it. Is that something you set out deliberately to achieve or did that develop as the book progressed.

HS: I knew I wanted the book to feel quintessentially English like the sisters, but I also wanted to reflect a complex, diverse society where prejudices and moral certainties could be challenged. I live in a small market town, which has a very different feel to the numerous villages that surround it, where many of my friends live. The degree to which everyone in a village appears to know what everyone else is doing astounds me!

Thank you to Hilary for answering our questions. You can connect with her via her website

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