Suffocated by slipknot of the past

Sally Beauman’s latest novel is being hailed by literary critics as another triumph. Matthew Lewin went to talk to the author at her Islington home...

Sally Beauman's new novel is in part about how dramatic events cast a lasso for ever around the lives of those involved and how it is so often the case that the harder they try to pull away from the past, the tighter the slipknot becomes.

It is also about the inexorable changes overcoming the countryside and how the demands of modern agriculture have turned quintessentially English patchwork quilt fields into arid prairies.

But, since it is written by Sally Beauman, we can also be sure that the book, The Landscape of Love, is also concerned with the politics of gender, from love and seduction to loss and betrayal. Lots of betrayal. This is her stock in trade - and has been ever since her blockbuster Destiny became the first debut novel to earn its author an advance of £1million - and there are few writers who can match her in this arena.

Since Destiny there have been five other bestselling novels, including an acclaimed (if slightly cheeky) sequel to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, called Rebecca's Tale. She expected a few complaints from what she describes as the "Daphne diehards", but the ingenious and gripping book was hugely successful, selling well over 50,000 copies in hardback alone.

The new novel opens in a 13th century semi-ruined abbey in Suffolk, the home of the impecunious branch of the Mortlake family. The building is described in such vivid detail that I was astonished to learn it does not actually exist.

"It's a figment of my imagination," she assures as we talk at her home in Whitehall Park, right up at the northern end of Islington (an area some estate agents refer to as "Highgate slopes").

"The abbey has elements in it that I have taken from other houses, other buildings, but it's a construct; it's all made up. And in general I prefer that, because I don't like working from life," she says.

"One of the reasons I set this book in Suffolk is that I have never lived there. I know it as a visitor, but I had to work at finding out about the area. I could have set it in the West Country, which I know much better, but it would have then felt too close."

(The author also chose Suffolk for her wedding last year to the distinguished RSC actor Alan Howard.)

The first section, set in the summer of 1967, is narrated by 13-year-old Maisie, the youngest of the three Mortlake sisters - a strange child full of brilliance and obsessions, but also vulnerable and in need of special supervision. She tells of her conversations with the murmuring ghosts of the old abbey and she sets the scene.

There is beautiful Julia, just back from the summer of love in California. There is Lucas, who is doing a painting of the three sisters. And then there is Finn, who is adored by Daniel, a handsome, dark-eyed Romany boy from the nearby village.

Why a gypsy? "I wanted him to be an outsider, which he would have been anyway in class terms, but I also wanted him to have something strange and racially different about him as well. I wanted some fortune telling in the book, the tarot cards, the suggestion of second sight, because much of the book is about how much people are able to control their own lives and their fates, how much are we the outcome of out lives, how much is determined by our births, nature/nurture, all of that. I wanted to bat all those possibilities about."

It is Dan who, 20 years later, takes up the narration and describes the aftermath of the dreadful event that brought that summer of 1967 to a close. Dan, who initially transcended his humble origins and became a star in the advertising world, has since lost his grip on his life, helped by a lot of drugs, alcohol and the weight of his own obsessions.

Finally it is cool Julia who takes up the story and reveals what there is left to reveal. This is all absorbing, captivating, beautifully written stuff that will underpin Sally Beauman's reputation as a serious writer.

The book, she tells me, is in part "how difficult it can be for a man and a woman to understand one another, to see that each person is actually thinking or feeling. In this case, they keep missing one another.

"But it's not just a gender issue. Everyone in the book has that failure that we all have, which is lack of imagination, the difficulty of understanding another person's predicament because we're too occupied with everything that is going on in one's own life. We are all guilty of that."

And, I put it to her, the book is not exactly a barrel of laughs. There is much heartache, tragedy, even death.

"Well, I decided to call it The Landscape of Love because that particular four letter word I thought was dangerous to use in a novel by a woman, and certainly a novel with my name of the cover, because some people might tend to jump to the wrong conclusions.

"But in fact it's a quote from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that I use at the front of the book - and his landscape of love is a severe and frightening place. Its chief features are a ravine and a graveyard, and that influenced me.

"In the book, the middle daughter, Finn, points out that there are some things in life that are irreversible. But Dan has always had this vision that things can always be rewritten, re-edited, and that there is always the opportunity that you can take things in a different direction.

"But that isn't always the case, of course; I think it's quite hard. Or at least I think it is."

Matthew Lewin.

Hampstead and Highgate Express, 21.1.05