Daughter of Catalonia by Jane Mackenzie is the story of Madeleine, a young woman of Catalan heritage who has been living a staid existence with her grandparents in England. As a six year old she was forced to leave occupied France with her mother and brother while her Spanish-born father stayed on to (fatally) fight in the Resistance. Her Catalan heritage is of bitter shame to her Grandparents and is rarely acknowledged. After the death of her mother she returns to the south of France, intent on finding some answers as well as a sense of patrimony and a sense of self. The year is 1958, a time of great hope and abiding peace. What ensues is a voyage of self-discovery and an opportunity for Madeleine to determine whether the same impassioned fight that underpinned her parents’ relationship is existent in her own nature.
The character development is rich and laudable. Jane’s observations of the English, the Parisians and the Catalans are delightfully accurate. A sense of relativity is one of the benefits, if not the joys of being an outsider in France and Jane manages to convey the idiosyncrasies of each culture with aplomb. It is in fact the vivacity of the characters that manages to lift the uncertainty of its post-war setting. The heroine, Madeleine, is naive, sensitive perhaps, but has the resilient Catalan backbone as to not make her wet, a tribute which fortifies her against the discoveries of betrayal and vengeance that make up her family history. The inhabitants of Vermeilla, the fictional town in which the plot is set, are as you would expect from a small French village. They are as you would find them now. You recognise them today in the boulangeries and boulodromes or propping up the bars. You see them in the laughter lines and inextinguishable twinkling eyes of Catalan faces. This sense that a regional character endures is what makes the book so relatable today, especially for those who live there.
While Vermeilla may be a product of the imagination, its surrounding context is entirely discernable. Jane took the decision to fictionalise the central town as a mark of respect. She didn’t want to do a disservice or get even the smallest detail misplaced. The principal characters do however make it to Collioure, Port Vendres, Amelie-les-Bains, the Vallespir and Ceret. For those who know the area there is a certain thrill at the recognition of a street or landmark. You almost feel like you are walking alongside them. Parallel to this however is the reminder that while these are the same sun-filled towns much loved and so often visited today, they have endured times very different. A series of well-constructed flashbacks reveal French Catalonia as a thoroughfare for treacherous migration with patriotism coming under fire from both the Franco regime and Nazi occupation.
But in the midst of disruption people sustain and where Jane thrives is in her descriptions of life’s small pleasures; something the Catalans still revere and uphold to this day. The region is brought to life through a series of sensory vignettes. You will feel the Tramontane wind on your face, taste the sugary Banyuls wine in your cheeks and want for that Roussillon sun at your window.
Daughter of Catalonia has received excellent reviews: “Daily Mail — Mackenzie evocatively captures the beauty of the Banyuls region of France and how its mix of French and Catalan culture forms something unique… a novel of quiet intensity and deep emotion”.
People have questioned whether Daughter of Catalonia is a love story. Certainly our heroine finds budding romance in the midst of coming to terms with her parents’ own ill-fated love affair. The conclusion is compassionate and full of optimism. But upon finishing you can’t help but wonder if it’s also Jane’s own love story. For the place she now calls home.
Daughter of Catalonia is available to buy on Amazon; Jane MacKenzie’s website – www.janemackenzie.co.uk
French Catalonia: Catalan was recognised as a regional language in 2007. The area of French Catalonia climbs from a small patch of coastal Roussillon, that includes Perpignan, up into the eastern Pyrénées.
About the Author Jane Mackenzie: Home is not necessarily where you were raised. After years in France its lucent sun shows in your complexion, its hearty wines sweeten your blood and its extraordinary inhabitants become your friends. As foreigners here the transition is not without its pitfalls but the recompense is immeasurable. We find our own little corner and make a home for ourselves. We view the landscape perhaps not as our own, but as one that has been generously shared with us by a people of great spirit and benevolence. We treasure this little corner. We strive to find a balance between championing it whilst keeping it for ourselves. For those of us who choose to live here, the choice in itself is statement enough. It is a lucky few who can find the words to justly describe what this place means to us and (for a wider audience) what it is to live la belle vie.
A peripatetic career in education saw Jane working in places as far flung as Bahrain and Ghana. She then found Collioure in the Roussillon and knew she didn’t want to be anywhere else. Finding herself in Collioure where everyday tales become the stuff of vivid legend was a writer’s dream. Speaking with the older generation of locals she became taken with tales of the rousing history of Catalonia, in particular the period between the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. She knew this was the story she wanted to tell. Rather than dwell on the hardship, she wanted to tell a story that ultimately concluded with a positive, happy ending. What stands is a tribute to the Catalan mentality. A tribute to their bloody mindedness, their magnetism, but moreover to their passion; Virtues that prevail to this day.
Daughter of Catalonia was reviewed by Roussillon resident Kirsten Mackintosh