Readers and reviewers who have enjoyed The Favour have tended to focus on the Italian setting. The early part of the novel takes place on a gap year art history course, in which in a group of privileged young teenagers travel around the splendours of Italy, soaking up art and alcohol in equal measure.
My protagonist, Ada, is desperate to fit in and ingratiate herself with her charming and entitled fellow students. When tragedy strikes, she sees an opportunity, and determines to use the secrets she uncovers to her own advantage … but is she in over her head? Italy is a natural setting for a story about the seductive powers of beauty and luxury and art; it’s a gorgeous country that outsiders have always associated with sensual pleasures, and perhaps the shadow of corruption too. The perfect setting for a tale of gilded youth gone awry!
But the location that anchors the story, and drives Ada’s increasingly underhand quest for social advancement, is a run-down country house in Carmarthenshire. This is the home Ada loses at the age of thirteen when her adoptive father dies and her mother sells up and moves them to London. Ada never gets over her sense of shock and loss. Everything she does is fuelled by her longing to return to her lost corner of Wales, a place she imbues with the lustre of a bygone golden age.
I’m not going to deny there’s an autobiographical element here (without the sociopathic social climbing or murder, obviously!). Like Ada, I grew up in an old house in the Brecon Beacons, under the shadow of the ruins of Carreg Cennen Castle. My maternal grandmother, Mary Powell, could trace her family line back to Iestyn ap Gwrgant (1014 – 1093), the last ruler of the Welsh kingdom of Morgannwg. But, also like Ada, my claims to a Welsh heritage are a touch fraudulent – I have lived in London for twenty years, have no trace of a Welsh accent and leave all rugby chat to my husband. Yet the landscape of my childhood retains a hold on me that only grows stronger as the years pass.
Italy has always been a part of this too. When I was a child my father, an artist, would spend many summers painting in Venice while my sister, mother and I roamed the city. From the first, I felt a strange sense of recognition when I gazed at all those beautiful landscapes in Renaissance art. I would look past the scenes of religious ecstasy or suffering or classical myth, past the fantasy marble cities, the parched plains, to the blue hills beyond … and to me, they were the same hills as those in the narrow Welsh valley where I grew up. An Italian Renaissance painter’s re-imagining of ancient Greece or Palestine is, for me, a dream of home.
It’s not the real Wales. I know that. The real Wales is a vibrant, complex modern nation, proud of its heritage and its myths, but not in thrall to them. The trouble is, I am a romantic and I have romanticised the land of my fathers above all things. Hiraeth, that powerful longing for a place or time that’s long lost, or perhaps has never been, is the driving force of Ada’s story, because I feel the same ache of nostalgia. In Ada’s story, hiraeth becomes something corrupted and corrupting. For me, it’s less damaging … but still bittersweet.
Thank you Laura for being our very first guest blogger – and thank you for reading! You can order The Favour at this link.