A love of the West Sussex landscape and its ancient history lies behind the latest book from Chichester University lecturer Jane Rusbridge.
She is launching the paperback of Rook on July 11 as part of the Festival of Chichester.
As Jane explains: “Rook is very much a local book. Imagery in the book drawn from our beautiful coastline, the sand dunes at East Head and the countryside surrounding Chichester, is something many reviewers have enjoyed.
“Part of the story was inspired by local historian John Pollock’s pamphlet Is Harold II Buried In Bosham Church? The novel is set in a fictionalised version of Bosham. It’s about love affairs and secret burials, and tells three women’s stories – the personal stories they have chosen to keep to themselves, or have felt unable to tell anyone.
“This is what interests me: untold or buried stories - the secrets people keep, the lies and half-truths they tell, and mysteries from the past. It’s something I like to explore in my writing. For example my first novel, The Devil’s Music, is about the damage done to a child by a family secret.
“One of the most important characters in the book is not a human, but a rook – the Rook of the title. That part of the story came from stories I’d heard about a pet rook kept by my husband’s mother, the sculptor Yvonne Hudson. Sadly, I never met Yvonne but she is well remembered in the area and at local events I often get asked if I am related to her. Her rook was kept in the kitchen of the family farmhouse in Earnley for many years, and as a boy my husband David hated it!
“When I’d finished writing the book, I learned that one of the less well known collective nouns for rooks is a ‘story-telling’ of rooks, which is a lovely coincidence!”
Jane added: “Rook involved a lot of research – into the Battle of 1066 and the history surrounding the Norman Conquest, music and cello-playing – but research is one of the aspects of writing that I love. Just sitting down with a pile of books and browsing, or talking to experts in whatever field it is I need to find out about.
“You come across such gems, sometimes by accident – such as my discovery that the old Sussex dialect has an unusually large number of words for mud, some of which are used in the novel just because I loved the sound of them. For example, ‘spannel’ means to make dirty with mud as would a spaniel on a floor, while the word to describe earth that sticks to the spade when digging is ‘cledgy’.
“I also met some very interesting people while researching Rook, including Jo Phillips in Norfolk. Jo rescues rejected fledgling rooks, or ‘starvelings’, returning them whenever possible to the wild once she’s nursed them back to health. The dining room of her house is given over to the birds she cares for.”
Jane added: “I’m looking forward to the launch event on July 11 because I’ll be joined by poet Stephanie Norgate, reader in creative writing at the University of Chichester. Stephanie was my tutor when I studied for my MA in creative writing at the university.
“The module she taught on transforming research and resources was inspirational; the effect it had on my writing process was fundamental because it made me realised how many stories there are out there – that I don’t have to rely on my own life story in my fiction.
“Stephanie and I will be talking about the ways memory and landscape influence our writing, and there’ll be lots of time for chat and questions.The ticket price entitles you to a glass of wine, and the cost of the ticket (£3) deducted from the price of one of our books on the night.”
In the book, Nora has come home to the Sussex coast where, every dawn, she runs along the creek path to the sea. In the half-light, fragments of cello music crash around in her mind, but she casts them out - it’s more than a year since she performed in public.
There are memories she must banish in order to survive: a charismatic teacher with gold-flecked eyes, a mistake she cannot unmake. At home her mother Ada is waiting: a fragile, bitter woman who distils for herself a glamorous past as she smokes French cigarettes in her unkempt garden.
In the village of Bosham the future is invading. A charming young documentary maker has arrived to shoot a film about King Cnut and his cherished but illegitimate daughter, whose body is buried under the flagstones of the local church. As Jonny disturbs the fabric of the village, digging up tales of ancient battles and burials, the threads lead back to home, and Ada and Nora find themselves face to face with the shameful secrets they had so carefully buried.
One day, Nora finds a half-dead fledgling in a ditch. She brings him home and, over the hot summer months, cradles Rook back to life...