|Cover art by Claire Maclean|
Most people will now be familiar with Baltic amber jewellery which you can find in many shops here in the UK and - I'm sure - worldwide. Of course there is plenty of fake amber on the market. You can usually spot it by its regularity and general nastiness but if you're in any doubt, rub it against a wool sweater - amber will pick up bits of paper afterwards; plastic won't. I love amber. I love its warmth, and its glow - the way it has the look of trapped sunshine, the way you can see tiny seeds and even insects, trapped deep inside it.
On one of my first visits to Poland, back in the 1970s, my cousin took me to visit a friend of hers, an artist who worked with amber and silver. I can still remember the smell that filled his studio as he polished a big chunk of amber on some kind of machine - it was the scent of long dead pine forests, pungent and magical. On that visit, my Polish great aunt Wanda gave me an old and beautiful amber necklace with a tiny fossil in each bead. It had survived the war with her and now she was passing it on to me. She told me that I should wear it often, because it would be good for my health. A couple of years later, while I was living and working in Poland, teaching English at Wroclaw University for the British Council, I was given one or two tiny amber hearts - it seemed to be a favourite way of shaping the resin.
When I first drafted out what I thought of as my 'Polish novel' - it went through various titles over the years - I always had in my mind a piece of jewellery as a sort of talisman, something that would have significance for the main characters, something that might change hands, but that would survive down all the years as my own amber beads had survived. I knew that it had to be amber - something warm and beautiful and desirable and rare. Gradually, I began to 'see' it in my mind's eye, and it had to be a heart, encased in a delicate silver filigree. I don't possess such a piece of jewellery. I only wish I did! And I've never seen one quite like it - not consciously, anyway. But I found it easy enough to conjure it up in my imagination and set it down on the page. As you'll find, if you read the novel, it threads its way through the story, not so much significant in terms of plot as in signifying something about the relationship between the heroine, Maryanna, and the hero (if hero he can be called) Piotro: some enduring, warm and magical quality.
If you find yourself reading this blog on or before the 13th or 14th June 2012, you can go to the Kindle Store at Amazon UK or Amazon US and download both The Amber Heart and my other new novel, Bird of Passage, to your Kindle, for free. There are similarities between the two books which I think I only realised after I had written them, over a span of years. Both are 'big' stories, heart rending tales of a love affair which - if not exactly forbidden - then is one which is pretty certain to encounter problems. Both of them involve a relationship which begins in childhood and lasts throughout life. And both of them deal with certain tragic realities of the time and place within which they are set - one in nineteenth century Poland and the other in twentieth and twenty first century Scotland and Ireland.
I've been thinking a lot, recently, about how to describe my novels for readers. None of them slot comfortably into any single genre, which I think is why I've had such problems finding a publisher in spite of a string of rave rejections of the 'we love this, but we're not sure how to market it' variety. They are unashamedly love stories, but not really romances in the conventional sense. And I think that's set to continue with the next two at least - both of them love stories, but not in any conventional sense. However, I realise that I enjoy a good romance as well as the next woman. And if you look for definitions of that word online, you will find this one: 'A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.'
Well, I'd be very happy to have that applied to any of my novels, but especially, I think, to the Amber Heart. And it seems to me to be a pretty good description of amber itself. It's certainly one which my cover artist, Claire Maclean, picked up and ran with in her gorgeous cover design, which seems to encapsulate the novel and the idea of amber all in one beautiful artwork.