The House at Zaronza

Written by Vanessa Couchman
Review by Sally Zigmond

This emotionally powerful novel is set on Corsica, and the island itself is the most important character. I could see the deep blue Mediterranean and the plunging cliffs and savour its cuisine and myrtle aperitif, but this novel is more than a travelogue. A tragic tale of misunderstanding and betrayal is its central love story. Its core strength is the depiction of the island during the 1914-18 war and in particular the life of French nurses on the Western Front.

The House at Zaronza begins in the present day, when Rachel Swift travels to Corsica where her mother was born, to research her family’s past. In the guest-house she discovers some passionate, but anonymous, love letters written to a girl called Maria. Although the name is common enough, Rachel is intrigued. Could Maria be one of her forebears?

During her research Rachel receives Maria’s memoir and discovers that Maria and Raphael, the young schoolteacher, fell desperately in love and planned to elope, escaping a marriage that Maria’s strict Corsican parents have arranged. For reasons Maria does not understand, Raphael fails to turn up. Devastated, she has no choice but to marry the detestable Vincentello. The marriage is a disaster. When the island, a territory of France, enters the Great War, Maria works on the mainland as a nurse, where she experiences death and misery on a massive scale. However, the novel draws to an optimistic conclusion, leaving the lingering fragrance of Corsica.

Vanessa Couchman writes with intelligence and skill but, as is often the case with first novels, this book suffers a basic structural fault. It is far too slow and laborious to begin with and is forced to rush headlong through the most important sections. With a rigorous editor, it would have been a more compelling read.