Celia Jeffries, a resident of Florence, writes her first novel, “Blue Desert”
A few years ago, Celia Jeffries started writing the story of an older Englishwoman who looks back on a life she kept a secret for years: a time when she lived in the Sahara desert and got rid of the customs and constraints facing British women in the early 20th century.
It was a story that Jeffries from Florence said unfolded in spurts. Realizing at one point that she did not have a real understanding of the Sahara, she delved into books about the country, from historical accounts to travelogues to novels. Then she signed up for an “adventure trip” to Morocco which included a five-day camel trek through the desert.
Along the way, there was also a two-year stay in the Peace Corps in the largely desert country of Botswana, a writer’s residency in France that brought her to new information about the Sahara and a trip to London. Today Jeffries has put together all the pieces for his first novel, “Blue Desert,” a story that blends historical fiction and adventure with an in-depth study of its central character, Alice George.
“Blue Desert,” by Rootstock Publishing of Montpellier, Vermont, also examines the damage that can be done to families by keeping secrets. And fittingly for the #MeToo era, it offers a feminist theme in its examination of the choices a woman makes in an era when few were open to her.
In a recent phone call, Jeffries, 71, a former newspaper editor and educational editor who now teaches at the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop in Williamsburg, jokingly compared her novel to “a difficult long-term relationship – we have broke a number of times when I put it away in a drawer. But in the end, the story unfolded in a way that I liked and that made sense. “
The novel alternates between England, Morocco and the expanses of the Sahara in the early 20th century and a six-day period in England in 1970. At the center is Alice, a teenage girl in the early 1910s, and in 1970 a woman. now well into her 70s who is haunted by her past; she is the main narrator of the story.
The opening scene of the novel quickly establishes the conflict at the heart of the story. Alice and her husband, Martin, are at their London home in June 1970, talking lightly about an invitation to a party when Martin delivers a telegram to Alice. She turns pale when she reads it, alarming her husband, who asks her what is wrong. Alice hesitates at first, then tells Martin that “Abu is dead in the desert.”
“Who is Abu?” Martin asks stunned.
“My lover,” Alice replies.
From there, Jeffries tells the story: how Alice, at the age of 16, moved with her wealthy family from southwest England to Marrakech, Morocco in 1910 because of her business. father as a linen merchant. Alice and her sister Edith, 14, are fascinated by the smells and sights of their new home: “[T]his house was open to light and air like no building in England was. The scent of roses, lemons and oleanders followed us inside when we were called to continue our studies.
But Alice, already criticized by her mother for her stubbornness and her “anti-feminine” behavior, annoys her mother more when she becomes too familiar with the Moroccan servants in the family: “Alice, please try to get you. drive properly. These people are not our type. Do not interfere. “
However, Alice’s openness to new experiences will be very useful to her, when, following a tragic accident in the desert outside Marrakech in 1912, she finds herself with a traveling caravan of Tuaregs, Semi-nomadic Muslims who have traditionally lived in parts of the Sahara stretching from Libya to southern Algeria, Niger and Mali.
One of Jeffries’ sources for the novel was the books of Isabelle Eberhardt, a late 19th century Swiss-born writer and explorer who moved to North Africa, where she dressed as a man and s ‘converted to Islam while living in the area.
Jeffries said she had not heard of the Tuaregs until a woman she met during a writing residency in France told her about the “blue men” of North Africa. Tuareg men wear clothing, especially a combined veil and turban called tagelmust, which is dyed with indigo, a color that can also stain their skin.
“When I started reading [the Tuareg], I knew that should be history, ”said Jeffries, who notes that the Tuaregs have a matrilineal culture in which women, who live in sedentary communities while men travel, generally have more status than those of many Arab countries. “Alice finds that she has more in common with this new culture than the old one, and more a sense of freedom.”
She is attracted to Abu, the chief of this Tuareg clan, and he to her; she slowly learns the Tuareg language and the rhythms of their nomadic life. Alice and Abu indeed become lovers, and their union produces a son, Rashid.
“Blue Desert” can be at its best in its lyrical evocations of the great outdoors of the Sahara, its varied terrain and its sudden ferocity at times. “Twilight came quickly one day,” says young Alice. “The wind grew stronger, blowing sand across the sky like mole leaves stretched across the horizon, erasing the line that defined our journey.
“When I went out into the desert I was amazed,” Jeffries said of his trip to Morocco. “It was so peaceful, so uncluttered, so vast. And it’s so much more than sand – there are mountains and rock formations and sections where you just walk on slabs of rock. It is majestic.
Alice bears witness to this majesty: she remembers that the desert made her feel “small and great at the same time.” I was an ant, an insect, crawling on the ground of the world, and I was an Amazon, the only woman among men, the only white among the darkness. I will never be so distinct again.
Yet outside the Sahara, World War I broke out in Europe, and Alice will also learn that she cannot stay with the Tuaregs; Through danger and grief, she will have to leave her son behind and return to a changed England in 1917, where she discovers that her experience and the war have driven a wedge between her, her sister and her mother.
Fifty years later, that rift between Edith and Alice is still there, and Martin, Alice’s sympathetic husband, discovers that he doesn’t really know his wife either. A diplomat marked by his own experience in the service of the First World War, he calls on his contacts in the government and the business world to help him unravel the mystery of Alice’s life in the desert, so that he can help her in turn.
It is all revealed slowly and carefully, creating tension and reflecting the beautiful and painful memories that have long consumed Alice. Jeffries says her story finally cemented when she developed the character of Martin; The staging of history in both World War I and England’s 1970s also allowed him to use the sweeping social changes introduced during those two eras as a natural backdrop for the emotional uproar in Alice’s life.
And Jeffries says the desert itself, with its wide horizons that can quickly disappear behind a sandstorm, is “kind of a metaphor for life itself and Alice’s story.” You think you can see what’s coming – and then just as suddenly you can’t. “
Celia Jeffries will be the featured reader of a virtual open mic on May 4, 7-9 p.m. hosted by Straw Dog Writers’ Guild. For more information, visit Strawdogwriters.org. Jeffries’ website is celiajeffries.com.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.