The White Hare, an intriguing tale of fractured relationships and new beginnings, is set in a strange Cornish glen and is based on real-life supernatural experience. We spoke to author Jane Johnson about her new book.
Jane Johnson’s husband likes to walk the coastal path. He leaves their home in Mousehole heading for Land’s End. He goes it alone and, as in his own way, will invariably “channel people’s thoughts” as he goes, healing the thoughts of those he knows who are in need. He will lose himself in these thoughts and in the landscape that surrounds him. It really is a meditative act, says Jane.
It was during one of these walks that Abdel encountered something strange. As he descended a steep wooded valley between Treen and Lamorna, he suddenly had an intense awareness of another presence and, looking up, he saw a brilliant light shooting through the trees. It happened to him two or three times on subsequent walks, in the same place. Nothing hostile, it was as if some kind of power was responding to his meditation. Abdel, “one of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet,” says Jane, didn’t talk about it for a while, but the story came out one day when they were having dinner with friends.
Hearing about her experience, Jane immediately knew the place. It was a place she considered “a not very quiet place, with its own strange and restless atmosphere.”
It was this “event” that inspired Jane’s latest book, The white hare, which she wrote during confinement. Normally splitting her time between Cornwall and Morocco, where she met and married Abdel 17 years ago, she found herself forced to stay in one place. So she relied on her, and Abdel’s, deep connection to the landscape of West Cornwall.
“Normally I write big, sweeping novels set in exotic locations, but I couldn’t go anywhere, so I was sent back to my own experiences.”
The book is set in the 1950s and follows two women, mother and daughter Magdalena and Mila and Mila’s young child, Janey, who move from the city to a neglected house in a remote Cornish coastal valley, where they undertake restore the building and explore the area. Over the weeks, stories and legends unfold, including that of a ghostly white hare that some have seen running in the surrounding woods.
The book has an unstable and unnerving thread running through it. Alongside this supernatural presence, there are disturbed human relationships and traumas, as well as beautiful moments between the characters, especially the mother and the daughter. The book is inspired by ancient history and echoes of the past, but it also has a post-war feel and a touch of 1950s glamour.
Jane is an established novelist and also an editor. She is the UK editor of game of thrones‘ George RR Martin, along with Robin Hobb and Dean Koontz. For many years she was editor of the works of JRR Tolkien.
“Books have always been my thing,” she says, adding that Janey’s character, “is so based on me.”
“I was a very lonely child,” she says. “I just left and disappeared into the landscape. I lost myself in comics and learned to read. From the age of four, I read because my parents were very busy building a business and trying to make things work.
Jane grew up in Fowey where her father was a fisherman and went on boat trips while her mother ran a small guesthouse, memories of which also influenced Jane’s description of the home in The white hare.
She writes historical novels and has always been fascinated by links with the past. “Growing up in Cornwall you are always up to date with history. He is always there around you.
After leaving the county for her publishing career, she eventually returned home and moved to West Cornwall, where many generations of her family have lived.
“It’s remote, remote enough not to have been developed, so it’s kept its history and kept its secrets,” she says.
It is these “secrets” that manifest themselves in The white hare.
“We know this is an area with a very ancient history and that history is sometimes very close to the surface.”
She is a skilled mountaineer (it was during a climbing expedition in the Atlas Mountains that Jane met her husband) and this partly explains her fascination with the physical earth. West Cornwall is basically a huge slab of granite, but the stone itself is also mysterious, she says.
She recounts the time she received an electric shock after touching one of the standing stones of the Merry Maidens. Incredulous at first, she did some research and discovered that indeed, in certain atmospheric conditions, granite can conduct electricity.
“It got me thinking, what if granite somehow retained the memory in the same way, and then could send that ‘shock’ back to you, could it pass the memory back to you, under the right circumstances?”
Returning to this valley that had such an impact on Jane and Abdel, she says: “Sometimes it seems that things happened in one place. You feel that there have been many experiences there and they have not gone away. It feels like a lot of history has been accumulated in this area. In some of those deep dark valleys, where it’s cool and shady, you definitely feel a presence sometimes.
For her next book, Jane returns to North Africa and 1950s Morocco. She and Abdel spend hours immersed in North African history. “We talk about it and talk about it — he knows his story — and then I go off and write about it. It’s pretty collaborative,” she says.
They will return to Morocco when they can, but for Jane, West Cornwall will always be home.
“This walk from Mousehole to Lamorna is the place I always think of when I’m not there. I repeat this walk in my mind.
“I have to come back to Cornwall. My roots are here and I feel at home and only get that feeling when I come back to this part of Cornwall.
The white hare is published by Head of Zeus, hardcover £18.99