Helen Matthews’ French Escape

Falling in love with France

Before I fell in love with France I’d flirted with Spain. I enjoyed the brashness of its coastal resorts, the elegance of the cities of Granada and Seville and even the smell of drains that hits you when you step off the plane. If Spain was a work of art it would be a vast, abstract oil painting, with bold colours scattered liberally over the canvas.

Though Monet and his contemporaries might disagree, France is more of a watercolour: fine brush strokes and subtle tints. Its beauty creeps up on you and gets under your skin.  Once France grabbed me, it wouldn’t let me go. Spain has had to manage without me.

In the first summer of the new millennium, when our children were small, we went on a camping holiday in France. We spent the first five days in Brittany, huddled under the awning of our leaking tent, commiserating with the Dutch family next door and agreeing we could  have stayed at home and ‘enjoyed’ the same weather in greater comfort.

The following week we moved further south and the sun came out. On the Vendee coast the heat was blistering under canvas so we fled inland and found a village where there was a chateau and a lake with a man-made beach, shaded by trees.  The village had everything needed for a simple holiday. Our children spent many happy days swimming in the lake and we hired pedalos to cruise the river, keeping inside the cool shadow cast by the village chateau’s walls. As we strolled around the main street, we noticed many of the ancient stone cottages were for sale at prices below £8,000. We decided to take a trip to the estate agent and investigate.

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In the end, we didn’t buy a cottage but took a gamble on a dilapidated farm building which needed to be practically knocked down before renovations could start. The building work took years and we spent many holidays living in a caravan on the site. It’s been habitable since around 2004 but, even now, we’re still working on it.

When I began writing my suspense novel Lies Behind the Ruin, I drew on this experience. My characters, Emma and Paul Willshire, impulse-buy a similar property while on holiday thinking it will be a haven, but they can’t escape secrets and lies from their past and the danger this brings for their family.

Fortunately our experience was life-enhancing rather than life-threatening. The obstacles we faced were practical and financial. Although the initial purchase price of our property was small enough to fit on a few credit cards, I had to regularly increase the mortgage on our house in the UK to release funds for the renovation. Our architect’s plans were rejected twice before we received planning permission and finding a builder proved impossible. Eventually my husband had to put his small business in the UK on hold while he went to France to work on the house, with the help of friends, under the guidance of a retired French builder.

Our house was only intended to be a holiday home and we never planned a permanent move, though I sometimes wonder if we should have taken the plunge. While our children were growing up  France became a refuge and sanctuary from my stressful working life. Under protest, the children left their computers and gaming technology at home and brought their friends with them on holiday. In the safe environment they spent time outdoors and had greater freedom than at home.

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I joined an evening class, took French A level and continued on to an Open University diploma, which included a week at summer school at the University of Caen. Sadly, I soon realised it’s impossible to play a full part in the community of a French village if you don’t live there permanently. Still, we have made many friends and our elderly neighbours, in particular, welcome our visits. Being able to converse in French and deal with tricky paperwork and trips to the mayor’s office has been a godsend. Our holidays in France are often spent working on the garden, painting walls or taking long trips to the DIY superstore but, somehow, the relaxed pace of life makes this a pleasure, not a chore.

When our children stopped coming on holiday with us, we began exploring other parts of France, taking mini-breaks within our holiday. Most years we join up with friends to do this and have explored the Auvergne, Bordeaux, Limoges, Poitiers, the Dordogne and the Lot. It was on one of those trips that I stumbled upon the perfect setting for Lies Behind the Ruin. I didn’t want to set it in our own village in the Vendee, so I created a fictional one outside Limoges and called it Sainte Juliette. The characters and daily life of the village are typical of many French rural communities, but the scenes set in the city of Limoges take place in real streets and buildings, including the cathedral. When I describe the pistachio-coloured frontage of a chocolatier, reflected in an ornate mirrored door, leading to one of the character’s apartments, this is an actual location and I’ve stood on that very spot.

The title Lies Behind the Ruin plays into the action and themes of the book and I’ve based one chapter in Oradour sur Glane, the site of a World War II Nazi atrocity in 1944. The village of Oradour is close to Limoges and was destroyed in the attack and the ruins are now preserved in memory of the 642 people who lost their lives. The massacre was a reprisal based on more lies – fake information from the collaborator military force, known as the Milice, that a Waffen-SS officer was being held prisoner by the Resistance. It’s one of the most haunting and harrowing places I’ve ever visited, in France or anywhere else in the world – perhaps on a par with the horrors of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. At the entrance to the ruined village, a sign reads Souviens-toi! Remember!

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In a world that seems increasingly fractured and angry, places like Oradour help us to bear witness to innocent victims of catastrophic conflict. It’s a place that’s impossible to forget and I’d recommend making a visit. While you’re in the area, why not stop off in Limoges to visit the impressive cathedral and walk around the streets to see if you can identify some of the locations I’ve used in Lies Behind the Ruin.

To find out more about Helen, take a look at her website at: 

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www.helenmatthewswriter.com and Lies Behind the Ruin published 25th April 2019 can be pre-ordered here or from the author’s website. After Leaving the Village is also available from Amazon and all good bookshops. 

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