An unforgettable heroine
Author Melanie Greenwood with a copy of her latest book, The Blue Hour (inset)
30th June 2021
By Kirstie Newton
Set in wartime Trevone Bay on the North Cornwall coast, Melanie Greenwood’s debut novel The Blue Hour has an unlikely heroine: 89-year-old Tilly Barwise, a brandy-swilling, style-loving, man-adoring chain-smoker. No sweet, powder-puff pensioner, Tilly lived a life of numerous affairs which helped her deal with the death of her wartime sweetheart, American reconnaissance photographer Jack Turner.
The novel bears the dedication “To Vermouth, 1928-2021 – Unforgettable.” Vermouth was the nickname of Melanie’s late mother, and in her she found the perfect inspiration for her protagonist. “She was very beautiful and that, combined with her personality, was quite a force,” Melanie reveals. “Although the story isn’t hers, she was the vehicle for it and I have quoted her verbatim and borrowed elements of her life. Her picture is even on the back of the book.
“Tilly can be unpleasant, and tells people how it is. She’s a woman with balls, likes sex and men and doesn’t want her age to stop her enjoying life. Flashbacks to her younger years show her at a time when she was in love and capable of great desire, experiencing the heady highs and lows of a global war in a small corner of England..”
The indomitable senior is contrasted with a younger woman: Ava Westmorland, heartbroken and fleeing from the smoking ruins of her life. Ava hopes a combination of countryside and coast will heal her shattered heart; she is drafted in to care for Tilly, and locals place bets that she’ll last less than a week, like the three carers before her. But her friendship with Tilly proves mutually beneficial, for the old lady is determined her protegee will follow in her doddering footsteps and embrace life to the full.
“Ava has had a few knocks in life - her husband has gone off with another woman - and she needs to be given a backbone and told, ‘Go out and live your life before you’re old’,” explains Melanie, who lives in the Mendips. “Tilly does that for her – her robust opinions lead to Ava's realisation that convention is only fit for throwing out of the window. Their friendship, between an older and a younger woman, is reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.”
The “blue hour” of the title refers to the phase of twilight when the sun is so far below the horizon, the light's blue wavelengths dominate. “I love that time of day, when work has ended and the evening proper has yet to start. It feels expansive, especially on summer days, and is very calming,” says Melanie. “It’s during this hour that Tilly meets Jack on the pier head in Liverpool. She’s now in the twilight of her life, trapped physically but not so much mentally.”
The novel was five years in the writing. “When I was a journalist on regional women’s magazines in Somerset, I came across a story that I thought was just incredible - it wouldn’t let go,” Melanie recalls. “A woman fell in love with a pilot during the Second World War, and was devastated when she thought he had died. Of course, there was a twist in the tale, and the story sent a shiver down my spine.
“I didn’t have time to write it when I was working, but then I studied in MA in creative writing at Bath Spa university, working as a pub waitress to pay the fees. It gave me the time and space I needed to write the first draft. I did a huge amount of research, reading and watching old war documentaries in order to write authentic diary entries and flashbacks. I loved finding out that Americans waiting for fish and chips in Padstow sometimes needed to wee after drinking British pints - and frequently fell into the sea, to be rescued with much hilarity!”
Airports were based in North Cornwall during the war, making the area a natural choice for the literary backdrop. “Americans breezed in and out of the towns, and their women,” laughs Melanie. “I love Trevone, and Cornwall in general; my son lives near Godrevy, and I visit regularly.”
Melanie sent her novel to agents and publishers, but it seemed it was never quite right. “It was too literary, not literary enough. It isn’t chicklit - it’s uplifting and funny, but tackles the serious issues life throws up: ageing, and what happens when your mind is young but your body isn’t; and the underlying poverty in Cornwall, where 10 miles inland people can’t afford to buy property and their kids have never seen the sea. Finally, a publisher in the north-east took me on and has been fantastic.”
She is thrilled to see her oeuvre finally on the shelves, to rave reviews: fellow novelist Louise Douglas describes it as “the literary equivalent of a strong gin and tonic on a warm summer’s evening: refreshing, invigorating and inspiring”.
“I do believe in my novel,” she says. “I like the humour in it. I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, and it's been good to find my writing voice after so many years of writing in other peoples' voices. Depending on what happens with it, I might do another - although I’ll need another true story to base it on...”
The Blue Hour by MJ Greenwood is published by Bad Press Ink at £8.99 (paperback).