One of this year’s most unforgettable reads will undoubtedly be In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings, a beautifully written novel of such elegance and emotional impact. Published earlier in April by Orenda Books, this wonderful book is now available – you can read my review here. I’m delighted to host a guest post by Amanda as part of the celebratory blog tour and I am particularly pleased that Amanda has written about the novel’s Cornish setting and inspiration. Cornwall – including Zennor – is a place that means a great deal to me and a year wouldn’t be well done without our annual July pilgrimage. After reading In Her Wake, I will look at Zennor and its little mermaid with fresh, inspired eyes.
The inspiration of Cornwall
I adore Cornwall and am proudly half-Cornish. In fact, if I could swap my Pinner-half for a second Cornish-half, I would without thinking (sorry, Dad!). I’ve spent summers, Christmases, and half-terms in Cornwall since I was born. I love the passionate landscape, the raging sea, the heat of an August day on the beach. I love pasties and crab sandwiches and tea out of thermos flasks whilst huddled beneath an umbrella on a rainy harbour wall. I love searching out seashells which lie nestled in the sand and sea-glass, smoothed by continuous tumbling breaking waves. I love those rare glimpses of seals playing in the shallows and the ruined tin mines, crumbling relics of a bygone industry, that punctuate the scrub. And I also love the ancient stories and legends that soak the this far corner of England.
From giants and pixies, to King Arthur and the Beast of Bodmin moor, Cornwall has a rich heritage of tales and superstitions. Unsurprisingly, being surrounded by sea on three sides, and with a history full of smugglers, piracy, and an economy reliant on fishing, there are many legends linked to the sea, and mermaids make regular appearances in local legends.
My mother comes from Penzance, but now has a house in Zennor, a beautiful hamlet on the coastal path between St Ives and Treen. It has a traditional pub complete with a crackling fire when it’s cold and glorious garden where you can sip cider in the sunshine. There’s a church, too. And in this church is a bench and on this bench is a carving of a mermaid. She’s the Mermaid – or Merrymaid – of Zennor, and I have always loved her story.
One day, from beneath the waves, she hears a man singing in the church choir. His voice is so exquisite she falls instantly in love and so leaves her underwater realm and swims up the stream that flows into the sea, and then, transforming her tail into legs, she walks into the church and sits at the back to listen to him, night after night, each evening falling deeper and deeper in love. Eventually she reveals herself to him and he is equally smitten and, pursued by angry villagers, they run back to the sea where they spend the rest of their days together. The stream in the story runs through my parents’ garden in Zennor, and because of this the legend has always held particular fascination for me.
I first had the idea of In Her Wake – or The Merrymaid and I as it was back then – about ten years ago. I wanted to upend a woman’s life. I wanted her to discover everything she knew about her upbringing was a lie and that her roots were not in quiet, sleepy Oxfordshire, but in this magical place, in Cornwall. Even in these early beginnings, I knew I wanted to include the Merrymaid’s story. At the beginning her role was reasonably insignificant, but as the narrative took shape her presence became stronger. Her story, her desperation to find love in an alien world, became a mirror for my protagonist’s search for her true identity, until gradually reality and myth became woven together. In the book, past and present merge inextricably with myth, so that Bella, the protagonist, has to sift through the confusion in order to find out who she really is, emerging – hopefully – like a phoenix from the ashes. Or perhaps in this case, a mermaid from the waves.
Thanks so much, Amanda! For other stops on this epic tour, please take a look at the poster below.