Homeland, by Clare Francis

Highbrow novel is plain sailing for Francis
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The Independent Culture

There are popular authors and there are highbrow authors. That seems to be the reality of the publishing world, especially when it comes to fiction. Occasionally, highbrow authors attract a wider market, helped by prizes or word-of-mouth recommendation. But woe betide the popular author who gets ideas above their station and pitches for the high ground.

There are popular authors and there are highbrow authors. That seems to be the reality of the publishing world, especially when it comes to fiction. Occasionally, highbrow authors attract a wider market, helped by prizes or word-of-mouth recommendation. But woe betide the popular author who gets ideas above their station and pitches for the high ground.

I find it hard to work out why some authors fall into one category or the other. One reason for being tagged "popular" is that the writer has come to our attention for something else and then used their celebrity to persuade a publisher to let them have a go at a novel.

Clare Francis is a case in point. She made her name as an intrepid yachtswoman and then turned to fiction, playing down her sailing past which is glossed over vaguely on the jacket of Homeland. There is nothing that gets up the literary establishment's noses more than a celebrity author who refuses to accept her niche. I share some of their prejudices. Some celebrity novels are just so bad they could join Ernie Wise's plays as examples of how not to do it.

So I approached Homeland with some scepticism, especially given the blurb about Francis tackling a serious historical subject: the appalling British treatment of Polish servicemen who had fought with the Allies during the Second World War. Once peace came, they could not go home, because of Stalin's takeover of their homeland. In order not offend him, the Poles were barred from victory parades in London and held in resettlement camps, where they faced public hostility.

Human misery and celebrity authors don't usually make a good match, but in Homeland Francis has produced a very fine novel indeed. The structure is taut and agile, and her prose impeccable. Her use of landscape - in this case, the wetlands of the Somerset Levels where farmers harvested reeds for basket-making - is exceptional. She captures a time and place that has now, thanks to improved drainage, all but vanished.

Francis handles betrayal, pragmatism, prejudice, dislocation and disillusionment in a way that is always thought-provoking and never predictable. There are no clichés, no caricatures, no embarrassing sex scenes to pep it up when the issues might have overwhelmed the plot, but instead a careful interweaving of different strands.

Homeland may not win prizes, but it is undoubtedly one of those novels that will stay with me, not least when next I drive along the M5 through Somerset and recall, thanks to Francis, the now forgotten mistreatment of the Poles, Britain's wartime allies. If that doesn't make a novel highbrow, I'm not sure what does.

The reviewer's 'Heaven: a traveller's guide' is published by HarperCollins

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