While millions of people are rumoured during lockdown to have finally made a start on the novel they always promised themselves they would write, few will make as sunny a success of it as mother and daughter Jacqui and Anna Burns. Set between the UK and Montenegro, their jointly written début, Love at Café Lompar, is a gloriously summery and transporting read, which opens with the suddenly widowed Grace clearing out her late husband’s desk, only to make the shocking discovery that he has another family in another country. She and her adult daughter Kat travel to Montenegro to meet them, and while Grace is devastated at the proof of his betrayal when they come face to face with Rosa and her son Luka, Kat is overjoyed at gaining a brother. The ensuing story is told in Grace and Kat’s alternating voices as the two families come to know each other through a shared love of food and cooking.
Jacqui Burns, an English teacher from a working-class background in Carmarthenshire, raised her daughter Anna, now a doctor and trainee psychiatrist, in south-west Wales as a lone parent. “So we’ve always had a very close relationship, and although Anna lives 200 miles away in Derbyshire, pre-Covid we visited each other regularly. We also FaceTime every day,” Jacqui tells me when the three of us meet via Zoom. Mother and daughter often discussed writing together, and started on a play, but a shared holiday in 2019 provided the spark for Love at Café Lompar.
Anna says: “We’ve always gone on holiday together and in 2019 we went on our first cruise, which we absolutely loved. One day we stopped in Montenegro and we were both captivated by it. Even though we only spent a day there, it made such an impression on us that we came home and had this germ of an idea.”
Fast-forward a few months to the first lockdown, which provided them with some breathing room to make a start on the novel. “Suddenly we had a bit more time—I wasn’t commuting as much as usual and Mum was at home a bit more,” says Anna. Each day, they took it in turns to write a chapter and send it to the other for discussion. This intense routine provided a welcome focus. Jacqui says: “I live on my own anyway, but during that first lockdown I felt pretty isolated. So writing the story became a bit of a lifeline, and completely gripped us. We would talk about each chapter in the evenings and what would happen next. We had no idea if the novel would go anywhere, but we came to really love the characters.”
The authors, who stress that neither Grace nor Kat resemble their real-life creators, tell me that there were never any creative differences; they worried only whether the voices of the mother and daughter characters might be too similar. “Neither of us has even been precious about taking on board the other’s feedback,” says Jacqui. Prevented by the pandemic from returning to Montenegro to research locations, the pair relied on guidebooks and on Google to help them create the settings for the novel. It is testament to their careful homework that the novel is so warmly atmospheric; it can only be a matter of time before Love at Café Lompar comes to the attention of the Montenegro tourist board.
They submitted it to around 25 agents and publishers, and received numerous rejections. But then Honno emailed to say it was interested in publishing it. “As a Welsh women’s press they were a really good fit,” says Anna. Both mother and daughter are full of praise for how Honno has embraced them as first-time authors. Jacqui says: “It’s been wonderful, they’ve been so supportive. Even when they made changes to the novel, it’s always been done sensitively. We really feel part of the Honno family."
The pair are already at work on a sequel (working title “Summer at Café Lompar”), and with publication of their début fast approaching, do they hope their novels will gain them fans among mothers and daughters alike? “We’ve talked about this a lot because we’ve got two characters of distinctly different ages. But at its core it is a novel about family, so we’re hoping that lots of people will relate to it,” says Anna. Jacqui concurs. “At the heart of our book is the message that families are complicated. The Café Lompar family is a very mixed-up one... you’d never think it was going to work. But it does.”
Love at Café Lompar will be published by Honno on 15th July 2021 (paperback, £8.99, 9781912905379; e-book, £2.99, 9781912905386).
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