The Sea Change weaves together the story of a lost English village requisitioned by the war office in 1943 with the aftermath of a tsunami in India.
On the surface, these two narratives could not seem further removed. Yet as I researched and wrote what was to become The Sea Change, I found they became increasingly inseparable in ways I could not have predicted.
In 1943, the villagers of Imber awoke on a cold November morning to the news that they would be evacuated from their homes to make way for American troops billeted to Salisbury Plain. Little did they know what lay in store for the village that had been their home for generations - it was to be used as practice ground for the D-Day invasion, and in their absence, would eventually crumble under shellfire and natural decay and gradually be reduced to ruins.
The villagers were so convinced that they would be returning to their homes after the war that they left cans of tinned pears in their larders. The evacuation, in their eyes, was only ever going to be temporary. It was this sense of a place that had not quite been allowed to die that first drew me to Imber back in 2011. There is something distinctly ghostly about its vacant church and boarded-up manor house. Imber is still marked on maps today, despite being no more than a collection of ruins.
My own connection to the village comes via my grandfather who was stationed as a colonel in nearby Bratton and was himself involved in military training on Salisbury Plain. I had heard of Imber’s story long before I visited it and was surprised to discover that it remained largely untold outside the local area. The evacuation itself was kept secret for security reasons during the war with the name of the village redacted in the newspapers . As a writer, I felt drawn to a story which I thought ought to be more widely known.
But as I began to write Imber’s story, and became aware of the deeply personal nature of the sacrifices that had been made, I started to doubt whether I was the right person to be telling it. My feelings began to chime with experiences I had had travelling in India - and so a second narrative, about the aftermath of a tsunami in the region, began to take shape.
Back in 2011, I spent six months living and working in a remote part of Tamil Nadu, southern India. As any traveller will know, it often feels impossible to fully comprehend the character of a place which you inhabit only temporarily. The more time I spent in the village where I was working, the more I became aware of the linguistic and cultural barriers that limited the extent to which I could fully know the place. I found myself reflecting on how childhood often causes us to form a bond with certain places which people who arrive from elsewhere can never fully appreciate or recreate. Often, time away from home makes you reflect more deeply on your own culture and roots and I found that, the more time I spent away, the more I created an idyll of home in my mind. Travel, I realised, was as much about returning as it was about going away.
My character Alice feels similarly displaced during her travels in India. The tsunami that strikes is a tragedy that, in her eyes, belongs to the inhabitants of Kanyakumari and not to her. And yet she is embroiled in it all the same. What’s more, the tragedy causes her to reflect on her own experience of home. Unlike her mother Violet, haunted by the village, Imber, she was forced to leave - Alice struggles to root herself to the place and the family in which she grew up.
While visiting some of the areas that had been hit by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in India, I was taken aback by the lasting mark that this one-off disaster had left on the coastal communities and landscape – the way in which the sea could obliterate in a few seconds places which would then take years to rebuild. A parallel emerged in my mind between the immediacy of the ruins caused by a tsunami and the slow erosion of Imber; the more I wrote, the more these two settings came to embody aspects of Violet and Alice’s characters.
My time in Tamil Nadu came to an end very suddenly when I contracted neurocysticosis – caused by tapeworm eggs which take root in the brain and prompt seizures. It was the medical notes given to me by the local doctor in Tamil Nadu that enabled me to recover back home – without these notes, the British doctors would not have known how to treat a condition which was very specific to the area in which I was staying.
Again, I was struck by the intimate knowledge that all landscapes imbue in their inhabitants – from geography to customs to farming to medicine – and how the loss of a place can not only disorientate a community but cause grief as deep as human loss.
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter is published by Penguin.