BLACK SNAKES AND RUSSIAN LULLABIES by Kate Furnivall
My skin is tingling. My nose is glowing brighter than Rudolph’s. It’s Publication Day for The Survivors in paperback this week and I am in a whirl of excitement. PR pieces, blog tour and radio interviews have got my brain buzzing.
But before it all takes off, there is someone I want to introduce you to. That someone is Valentina. She is my grandmother. Without Valentina there would be no The Survivors.
To my everlasting sorrow I never knew her in person because she died of pneumonia long before I was born, but she was always a strong and graceful presence in my life. This beautiful photograph of her watched over me and my three siblings throughout our childhood, as we laughed and squabbled our way through our giddy years of growing up. It stood on the piano while I went through my disastrous flirtation with piano lessons, and I really did try harder to make the notes join together in the right order because I knew she had been a talented pianist herself and was listening to my efforts with dismay.
But behind Valentina’s intense gaze there were secrets. Secrets that I had not dreamed of. Horrors I had not imagined. I had always known that my mother had lived most of her childhood abroad – 5 years in China, followed by 5 years in India – because her stepfather was a British journalist with Reuters and then wrote for the Calcutta Times. We were captivated by exotic stories my mother told of her time in Tientsin in China, stories of a thousand songbirds in cages in the marketplace, of acrobats spinning through the air in the street, and of black snakes writhing across the bathroom.
We oohed and aahed and shivered with the thrill of it. Our sleepy seaside town in Wales just didn’t compare. It took me a long time to figure out that my mother’s obsessive dislike of bagpipes was because they sounded way too similar to the snake-charmers’ pipes in the streets of India where they conjured up the scary cobras from their baskets.
But truth has a habit of squeezing its way out in the end. Not long before my mother died in 2000, I was skimming through her old sepia photographs and came across one of her as a child on a beach in China – she was about four years old and cute as a kitten – and suddenly the words that had been locked away inside her for so many years came tumbling out.
“It’s time I told you that my mother was Russian,” she said. “I was born in St Petersburg, not here in England. I didn’t come to England till I was thirteen.”
“What? Valentina was Russian?”
“Da,” she smiled. (Russian for Yes.)
Well, my jaw hit the floor. You could have knocked me down with a babushka. When she’d picked me up off the floor, she told me more. Valentina belonged to a wealthy White Russian family that was forced to flee to China from the Bolsheviks when the Russian Revolution ripped Russia apart and plunged it into civil war. Yet when I look back, there were clues – my mother’s ability to count in Russian and to sing Russian lullabies. But these were things I just accepted as a child. Now I was determined to find out what it meant to be Russian and I dived into everything to do with that vast tumultuous country – its history and its culture. I travelled by road across great swathes of it and out of all this extraordinary story emerged my first historical book, The Russian Concubine.
I was fortunate. The book jumped on to the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into over twenty languages. I felt as if Valentina had walked into my life and was enjoying the ride. Her name was on my lips as I gave talks and when I did a book tour of America I took this photograph of her with me. She had changed my life.
And now she is doing it again with my new book, The Survivors. When I viewed all the heart-breaking images on the news recently of Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of Europe, desperate and destitute, it awoke in me again all the pain and rage I had felt when my mother told me about her flight with Valentina across the thousands of miles of Russia. Travelling by night for safety. Chewing on worms in the forest. Eating bark. Followed by the misery of existence as a refugee in China. No money. No food. No home. No future. And above all, the humiliation.
The utter humiliation.
That was why she had never told us the truth about being Russian. The humiliation was seared into her soul.
So I used my pain and rage in a positive way. I explored how Europe had dealt with the millions of homeless refugees at the end of World War 2 and I discovered the existence of camps for Displaced Persons set up in Germany by the Allied military government. Immediately I knew I had found my story. I chose to write about a young Polish woman and her daughter, dirt-poor refugees who trek to one of these camps. All the hurt and sorrow I felt for my mother and Valentina flowed into this book when my main character, Klara, faces danger and betrayal.
The Survivors has already been named as one of the Books of the Year by the Mail on Sunday, so I look at this photograph of Valentina that now stands on my own piano and I thank her. She was again my inspiration. I know that she will be smiling down on me when The Survivors paperback is published on Thursday 29th November.
PS – If you are wondering where my mother’s biological father was in this story – I have a tendency to airbrush him out. He was Danish (hence my mother’s red hair) and abandoned Valentina and my mother in China when he went off with another woman to America. The words bastard and dirty rat come to mind.