UK author Sue Barnard shares a post she wrote about the main character in her new novel, Finding Nina. This is the second time Sue has used Nina as a character. As she says, Finding Nina is part-prequel, part-sequel to Nice Girls Don’t.
Another character is Nina’s mom, Alice. Or as Sue says, “There are two sides to every story, and I wanted to give Alice the opportunity to tell hers.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Sue’s last novel Heathcliff, which fills in those missing years when Emily Bronte’s character disappeared. We are fellow authors at Crooked Cat Books. I like her humorous Facebook posts about public displays of typos — alas, unintentional by those who wrote them.
WHO IS NINA?
Back in 2012, when I first started writing Nice Girls Don’t, I intended it to be a stand-alone story and I had no plans for a sequel. Only after it was published (in 2014) did it dawn on me that a loose end had been unintentionally left dangling. The book is set in 1982, but in one key scene, mention was made of something which had occurred almost forty years earlier – a baby girl, born in secret during World War Two, and given up for adoption. This was not referred to again in Nice Girls Don’t, and thankfully it didn’t affect the outcome of that story, but it did leave open the possibility of another one: What could have happened to that wartime baby?
The baby was Nina, born in mid-November 1943, when World War Two was still at its height. Her mother was seventeen and unmarried, and although the war had changed many things, the prevailing post-Victorian attitude to illegitimacy was not one of them. So one month later, just before Christmas 1943, Nina was handed over to a childless couple who formally adopted her and changed her name to Stella.
Finding Nina is part-prequel, part-sequel to Nice Girls Don’t– but it isn’t just about the eponymous Nina/Stella. It’s also the story of Nina’s mother Alice, who is always present in the background in Nice Girls Don’t, but who (for reasons which anyone who reads the book will appreciate) never really steps out of the shadows. There are two sides to every story, and I wanted to give Alice the opportunity to tell hers.
Here is how that story begins:
Wincanton, Somerset, England – 14thNovember 1943
“PLEASE! Help me! I can’t do this!”
Alice panted in agony as the pains increased. She had never imagined that it was possible to suffer like this. It felt as though a vicious steel band was being tightened around her stomach.
The boot-faced middle-aged midwife threw her a look which was at best unsympathetic, at worst downright hostile.
“Help? You must be joking. There’s a war on. Even if we had the stuff, we wouldn’t waste it on the likes of you. You got yourself into this mess, my girl, and you can get yourself out of it. If you’d kept your legs together nine months ago, you wouldn’t be here now!”
Alice didn’t need to be reminded that there was a war on. It was because of the war that she was now in this dreadful predicament. Without the war, she would never have left her home village to work as a Land Girl. She would never have lost her father in the freak air raid two years earlier. And she would never have met Tom, the handsome Scottish soldier who had been stationed in the nearby town, and who had captured her heart.
Closing her eyes to shut out the midwife’s glares of condemnation, Alice clenched her teeth in a vain attempt to suppress another scream. Through her pain-soaked consciousness she clung desperately to the one thought which could sustain her: the distant but already fading memory of the baby’s father.
Tom had never even known about her pregnancy. He had been posted to India eight months earlier – and his letters home had ceased before Alice had even realised she was overdue. She had no idea exactly what had happened to him, but for him to cut off all communication was so out of character that she knew she could only fear the worst. Any remaining hope of ever seeing him again was fading with each passing day.
Was it a crime to fall in love? Was it a crime to seize the moment, knowing that it might never come again? If so, she was certainly being punished for it now. Not just through the physical agony of a long and difficult labour, but also with the mental anguish which came with the knowledge that she was about to break the most damning commandment of all. The unwritten Eleventh Commandment which had been drummed into her for the whole of her short life: Thou Shalt Not Bring Shame Upon Thy Family.
“Come on, Alice. You’re doing fine.”
These words were spoken by a different voice. It was a few moments before Alice realised that the bullying midwife had been joined by a younger nurse, who was now holding a cool damp cloth against Alice’s burning forehead.
“It doesn’t…feel…like it…” Alice gasped.
“You are. It won’t be long now.”
The older midwife, who was crouching down by Alice’s feet, spoke again. “It’s breech.”
Through the fog of pain, Alice wondered if she detected a trace of malice in the woman’s tone.
“Breech? What does that mean?”
“It’s coming out feet first,” the younger midwife explained. “It means it might take a little longer.”
A little longer? How many more hours can this go on?
“Yes, you can. Come on, now. Push gently, and I’ll guide the baby out. We can do this together.”
“No! I…” Alice’s next words were lost in a piercing scream, then another, then another. Then, suddenly, it was all over. She lay back, panting and exhausted.
“Well done, Alice,” the younger nurse said, as she covered her with a rough utility blanket. “You’ve got a beautiful baby girl.”
The older midwife snatched up the baby, marched across the room and placed her on the scales. “Six pounds five,” she barked.
“Is that good?” Alice asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s not bad, considering,” the younger nurse answered. “What are you going to call her?”
“I don’t know…”
As her daughter was placed in her arms, names were the very last thing on Alice’s mind. She glanced down at the wrinkled features, and the tiny fingers which were already gripping her own.
Yes, she thought, she is beautiful. And she is going to need a name. But what’s the point? I can’t possibly keep her.
She looked up at the young nurse. “What’s your name?” she asked.
Alice looked up at her through brimming eyes. “That’s a lovely name. I’ll call her Nina, after you.”
FINDING NINA is officially released June 3, but is already available for pre-order.
1943: A broken-hearted teenager gives birth in secret. Her soldier sweetheart has disappeared, and she reluctantly gives up her daughter for adoption.
1960: A girl discovers a dark family secret, but it is swiftly brushed back under the carpet. Conventions must be adhered to.
1982: A young woman learns of the existence of a secret cousin. She yearns to find her long-lost relative, but is held back by legal constraints. Life goes on.
2004: Everything changes…
Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet who was born in North Wales some time during the last millennium. She speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad. She now lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.
Her mind is so warped that she has appeared on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show, and she has also compiled questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult Round Britain Quiz. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck.
Sue’s own family background is far stranger than any work of fiction. She would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.
Finding Nina, which is her sixth novel, is not that book.
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