Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
“How to be Brave” author Louise Beech takes to the sea
26th August 2016
One of the books that has really struck a chord with us this year is How To Be Brave by Louise Beech. It is truly 5*, uplifting and compelling. Essentially set on the Atlantic, it is a novel about how stories bring magic to our lives. Natalie and Rose are transported to the Atlantic Ocean in 1943, to a lifeboat where an ancestor survived for fifty days. Natalie struggles when nine-year-old daughter Rose is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and refuses her life-saving injections and blood tests. When they begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar they realise he has something for them – his diary. Only by using her imagination, newspaper clippings, letters and this diary will Natalie share the true story of Grandad Colin’s survival at sea, and help her daughter cope with her illness and, indeed, survive. This is a haunting, beautifully written, tenderly told story that wonderfully weaves together a contemporary story of a mother battling to save her child’s life through the medium storytelling with an extraordinary story of bravery and a fight for survival in the Second World War.
Louise has recently returned from a cruise and this is her story – the first time she has set foot on a boat since publication of her novel:
How to be Brave began with that title, and ended up with that title. Briefly, I toyed with Back to the Sea for a name, but returned quickly to the one I loved most, the one that felt just right. Back to the Sea I had considered because of the double meaning suggested; both returning to the sea and turning your back to the sea. Grandad Colin – the merchant seaman lost at sea for fifty days on the South Atlantic sea – was eternally haunted by the ocean and yet never went back there after his ordeal.
Last week I went back to the sea. Back to it for the first time after writing How to be Brave. My experience, of course, was a completely different affair to poor Grandad Colin’s nightmare. While he drifted in unbearably hot sun and under cramped conditions on a tiny lifeboat, I sailed aboard a luxury cruise ship, where food and water was in abundance, and my quarters were air-conditioned and had a comfortable bed. I headed down the coast of northern Spain and western Portugal, on the Atlantic, though not quite reaching the African coast, where Colin was finally rescued.
To feel closer to him, I often went and stood on the deck to watch the endlessly undulating water. I looked for the many colours I’d created in the novel, hoped to see some of the animals Colin had watched, and the sunsets witnessed. And the magic happened! One evening the sea was literally gold; it rippled so gently, like velvety chocolate scattered with orangey bits. Another day I saw playful dolphins leaping after one another, the water spurting from a whale, and three huge jellyfish.
Grandad Colin noted that being on a lifeboat meant you were so much closer to the sea than by being on a ship’s deck, where you could only view from a distance. He was right. We boarded one of the lifeboats to journey to Guernsey, and it was indeed a wholly different trip. The salt got in my eyes, the water’s spray dampened my hair, and the choppiness of the sea meant we bobbed and bounced at its will. Our lifeboat, however, was a great thing, with a roof, an engine, and proper seats, big enough for around eighty people. Grandad Colin’s had been wooden with no cover from the sun, no engine, around twelve feet by eight.
I felt close to Colin out on the sea. Close to his brother Stan who was lost there forever during the war. I thought about Colin’s shipmates who died there too. The ocean’s beauty is so utterly deceptive. She has so many colours and currents, but ultimately she is her own boss. She’s full of life, but means death for those lost there. At night, as I slept in comfort, I tried to imagine the horror of being woken by an explosion, of having to get out, fast, as the ship sinks in minutes.
Naturally, I took my novel with me. I took her on a trip around the ship, let her see the lifeboats, the life jackets, the rescue ring. I read bits from her as I sat on the deck, her pages buffeted by the wind. And at the end of my journey I donated this copy to the ship’s library. Perhaps other, future, readers will look up as they read on deckchairs too. Perhaps they will imagine they see a lifeboat on the shimmering horizon, perhaps they’ll wave at the brave men aboard her. Perhaps they will feel Grandad Colin at their side for the rest of the day.
Thank you to Louise for sharing such a poignant piece of writing.