Melancholy and menace

THE sense of place is a constant in Roma Tearne’s work. Not surprising, considering she fled her troubled homeland of Sri Lanka at the age of 10 and has never been back. The daughter of a controversial mixed-race marriage, she became a streetwise kid on the streets of Brixton and now lives among the dreaming spires of Oxford. In between, she enjoyed a couple of happy years in East Anglia. Her new novel, The Swimmer, is set on the Suffolk coast. It’s a story about love, loss and what home really means, and for the most part is told in three different first-person voices. Ria, a woman approaching her mid 40s, lost her father when she was a child and ever since has struggled to find love. Then a young illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka called Ben arrives in Suffolk via Moscow. Pending a decision from the Home Office on his asylum application, he takes a daily swim in the river near Ria’s home. An unconventional but emotional romance follows – defying boundaries, cultures and, dare we say it, the xenophobic fictional residents of Orford. Tragedy isn’t far away, however.

Roma had long been obsessed by the land around Orford, Dunwich and Aldeburgh – spending hours sketching Scots pine that appealed to her artistic sensitivity – but it was a bracing walk along Aldeburgh beach that had the tale forming in her imagination.

“We were staying in the Wentworth Hotel,” explains the writer/painter. “We walked onto the beach one really grey day – you could not tell the difference between the land and the sky – and there were these three figures walking in a huddle. They were all dressed in black, with anorak hoods. I was taking photos of the sea, and I just turned and photographed them, didn’t take any notice of it, got back home, printed out the pictures.

“This image of these three figures, bent against the wind and huddled together, was the one that did it for me. Suddenly, I thought ‘Yes. Three voices . . . East Anglia . . .’ It started as a visual image. All my books, if I think about it, start that way.”

It was only a matter of time before a Roma Tearne story was set on the heritage coast, by the sound of it.

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“I cannot tell you how much I love that part of the world. I painted the Suffolk and Norfolk landscape for 20 years.”

In the 1980s she came to Norwich because of her first husband’s job, her son just a few weeks old, and often visited Aldeburgh because she had friends there. “I got obsessed with Dunwich. I used to walk on the beach and paint it.

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“I found in a little chapel, a secondhand bookshop, for very little money an extraordinary photograph album, with images of old Dunwich. They were seepia photos and just beautiful. I had this obsession with that part of the world. It’s got this melancholy air and it’s really not like anywhere else in Britain.

“I came from Brixton and was a bit of a street kid growing up, really, and was not at all a country person, though as a child I had grown up by the sea in Colombo and had a very sort of seasidey life up to the age of 10. Urban London was just fantastic for me, and I couldn’t stand anywhere outside of London – except East Anglia. It was the landscape and the people.

“I was told when I was moving ‘Oh, you’ll never fit in. You’ll never make friends. You need a passport to go to East Anglia.’ But the people were so friendly.”

Much later, she’d return to coastal Suffolk with the children and second husband Barrie – an English professor. They’d rent a cottage and explore the low lands around Orford and Aldeburgh.

Her eye was caught on a more recent visit by the abundance of Scots pine, particularly at a crossroads on the way to Orford (on the B1084 near Sudbourne Park, by the sound of it), and spent a long time drawing the trees. Then came that stroll on Aldeburgh beach, the three strangers, and the idea of hatching a story.

Those atmospheric Scots pines would resurface, alongside a burgled house, in the early pages of the book – though the location was switched to Dunwich.

Once she’d embarked on her story, Roma spent considerable amounts of time in Suffolk in 2008, doing research.

“It was just magical. I found the house I wanted to use. [Ria’s home.] I moved its location to another part, where the marshes are. I did the walk hundreds of times, so I could get the location right and you could see the river, the house and the [Aldeburgh] Martello tower. I used to sit there with a sketchbook and just drew until I’d got the location fixed in my head.”

The writer reckons she can put her finger on the appeal of these coastal lands. “It’s the colour, I think – the colour of the sea and the sky. It’s within a certain range of duck-egg blue and a kind of evergreen. I think that’s what’s attracting me to the place. It’s a mixture of melancholy and menace.”

It’s not surprising, then, to learn Roma was an acclaimed painter before picking up her novelist’s pen.

Born in Sri Lanka, she was the only child of a mixed marriage: her Singhalese journalist mother disowned by her family for marrying a Tamil.

Although Roma’s early childhood was wonderful – loving parents; failing asleep to the sound of the Indian Ocean – tension wasn’t far away. Internal uprisings broke out in the 1950s – a prelude to full-blown civil war. The writer remembers being four and seeing a young man have petrol poured over him and set alight. She and her mother hid – her mum crying, worried the man might have been her husband.

Roma was 10 when the family fled unsafe Sri Lanka in 1964, landing at Southampton early one August morning after an uncomfortable 21-day voyage to England.

She says her parents never really fitted in in this country: her mother, once a journalist in Colombo, effectively giving up and marking time. Roma, meanwhile, loved Brixton, adopted English as the language of her new world, and assimilated.

She went on to college but quit, appalled, after a tutor asked her who had written her essay on Dickens’s Bleak House. If she could produce work like that, he said, she would be studying at Oxford instead.

A return to academe didn’t happen until her youngest child was a toddler. The seat of learning was this time the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she studied painting.

Later, in 2002, Roma was artist-in-residence at the city’s Ashmolean Museum and “wrote a little detective story. I was getting something like 40 emails a day on my website from the public, and the staff at the museum said ‘What are you doing this art for? You should be writing!’ I thought ‘OK, I’ll give it a go . . .’

Her first book, Mosquito, was about a middle-aged Sri Lankan writer who fell in love with a 17-year-old artist. The civil war in her homeland was also a theme.

The author has said the story “grew out of a longing. A longing to return to my past which had been lost in the mists of time and the events of war. I wanted to walk again on that beach I had known as a child, so I imagined the place as it once was . . .”

Mosquito was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award in 2008. Published the same year was Bone China: a tale of love, loss and an uprooted family, set in both turbulent Sri Lanka and London. In the summer of 2009 came Brixton Beach. It featured a young Sri Lankan girl who moves to England, becomes an artist and eventually finds true love – before life is thrown upside-down in the 21st Century by the war on terror and the suspicions it brings.

Brixton Beach was featured on the More4/Channel 4 TV Book Club in early spring – welcome recognition, though something that caused the writer some angst, since she hadn’t before “done” television.

And was it true she got a TV set only just in time to watch the programme? “Oh dear,” she laughs. “Yes. Well, actually, I have to confess it was my son’s TV and he later took it back! We don’t watch television. We don’t have time. Anything we want to watch, we get it on the computer.”

Writing, Roma says, is a wonderful thing that makes memories and time permanent. “In hindsight, I can see that’s why I started to write: because it’s then there, like a handprint.”

Her fractured homeland is always in her thoughts, but she has no idea when she’ll see it again.

“I can’t go back. Not yet.” Her poet father’s ashes were sprinkled there “and I’d love to go and see my home. I’d be on the plane like a shot. I just feel, having written about it so loudly, I have a moral obligation not to go back until Amnesty’s allowed in. They won’t allow Amnesty [International]; they won’t allow journalists in.”

Visiting would in a sense validate the regime, she feels.

“I’m very angry about the political situation, which is something the international community needs to know about. It’s a country that is spinning into a political dictatorship and is in complete and utter denial about the genocide and the conditions of the ordinary civilians in the north of the island.

“I know there were Tamil terrorists and I know they did not help the Tamils – they were as bad and they did prolong the war, in the way the ruling party did – but the civilians, the women and children, are the people who concern me.

“The general public around the world should know about the corruption and human rights abuse that’s going on. So many people have been killed and put in mass graves.”

The conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam lasted for more than a quarter of a century, with its roots in the troubled relationship between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities from the 1950s. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office says tension appears to have come to an end with the military defeat of the Tigers about a year ago. “Over 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed and some one million displaced.”

The FCO says significant improvements have been made to the Sri Lankan government’s “very poor human rights record of the 1980s and 1990s . . . but problems do remain”.

Here’s a piece of cod psychoanalysis: Is there a part of Roma scared that a visit might show some of her childhood memories – which help make her who she is – to be faulty, and therefore threaten her view of herself and her own identity?

“Absolutely. And I would love to do that, actually, because I think there could be a book in it! I know I did have a very idyllic childhood – I was an only child and my parents adored me and I’d just have fun all the time. I’d go to the beach, I’d go swimming with my dad every day, and there was lots of literature in the house. Now my parents are dead and my own children are older – my youngest is 19 – and I kind of want to revisit my roots because I think there could be another novel in it. But it’s just not possible.

“And I think it would be disturbing. I don’t think it would be a wonderful experience per se. I think I would question my identity and I think that would be very interesting.”

In the meantime, there’s plenty to occupy her closer to home.

“I haven’t finished with East Anglia; I’m going to be writing more about it. There is so much of the past there that is just visible in a way that it isn’t in other parts of the country. That’s why I like it.”

n The Swimmer is published by Harper Press at �14.99.

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