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The timeless story of the search for a better life is the inspiration behind and message of Rob Gittins’ new novel, Hear the Echo, which is set around an Italian café in a vividly portrayed South Wales Valleys community.
The critically acclaimed novelist has also won awards for his screenwriting, and has written for numerous top-rated television drama series, including EastEnders, Casualty, The Bill, Heartbeat, Vera and Stella as well as many original plays for Radio 4. In 2015 he received an Outstanding Achievement Award in recognition of his work as EastEnders’ longest-serving writer.
The novel weaves together two contrasting stories, both of Welsh-Italian women in the same Valleys community but living 80 years apart. Chiara is a first-generation immigrant and has to deal with religious bigotry and prejudice in the close-knit mining community in which she lives in the run-up to and during the Second World War. The other thread follows present-day Frankie, who has her own struggles to keep the wolf from the door.
Hear the Echo reveals unexpected connections and commonalities:
“Going back into history sometimes makes clear just how relevant seemingly old stories can be,” says Rob Gittins, before adding:
“The women are different, the historical period is different but the trials and challenges they face are exactly the same. Each is seeking to escape a world that is at one and the same time a home and a prison, each is trying to work out the opposing claims of duty and desire, each struggles to navigate hugely difficult economic circumstances.”
The story was partly inspired by a love of the old Italian cafés of the Valleys, which Rob Gittins started frequenting after moving to Wales in the 1970s, and their unique character and tradition:
“They are extraordinary places, steeped in history and character, a far cry from the homogenised chain cafés that had already begun to appear by then and supplant them – a process that’s intensified over the years. There was always a magic about them – as well as a powerful sense of tradition – that I loved. They’ve brought so much to the Valleys, and really seem to represent the coming together of two very warm and welcoming cultures.”
But there was a second inspiration too:
“I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of ‘echoes’, the idea that – and despite all logic tells you – thoughts, emotions and characters can somehow reach you from across time. Sitting in some of those Italian cafés back in the 1970s, looking at all the pictures on the walls of the people who used to live and work there – it wasn’t difficult to imagine them still there somehow.
Out of that came the idea of two women intimately connected to one such café – the fictional, Carini’s, in this story. They’ve never met, they can never meet – but as the story progresses each becomes real to the other in ways neither quite understand.”
As one of the stories is set in the 1930s and 1940s, there was a fair amount of research to be done. As the author researched the era, mining communities, the high number of Italians who first moved to Wales in the 1930s and the xenophobia and religious bigotry that many faced, a clear message became apparent – similar issues have been affecting people throughout history:
“Both Chiara and Frankie are to some extent refugees. And refugees, in one form or another, are such a massive modern story. Modern day refugees have to undertake journeys and trials my two fictional characters could only wonder at, but the desire is exactly the same.
What Chiara and Frankie are celebrating is an impulse that beats even more strongly in the modern age in a sense; somewhere, out there, is something better and I want to find it.”
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