Co Down author creates a new hero in ‘Lenny’

LIFE’s journeys, their mysticism, their fragility – and their often unpredictable ends – are once again delicately explored in Co Down author Laura McVeigh’s new novel, lennywho swiftly travels between Louisiana and Libya in search of healing, hope and a “home”.

Along the way, a plane crash, desert and sinkhole threaten to engulf 10-year-old Lenny and a community he holds dear.

Set in 2011/2012, McVeigh tells the story in converging timelines, beginning with a mysterious pilot who falls from the sky into the Ubari Sand Sea during the Libyan Civil War and is rescued by Azil, a young Bedouin boy .

Attention then shifts to Louisiana, a year later, where another young boy races against time to carry out his own rescue…

It is, says the Rostrevor-born author, a story of humanity, optimism and the restorative power of the imagination – all confronted with the realities of war, a broken family, environmental catastrophe. , an economic crisis and a community on the brink.

“At its heart is a very human search for ‘home’ and that feeling of safety and security when people come together to help,” says McVeigh who, beyond human, political and environmental contexts, also explores some imaginative “time bending” and different perceptions of reality.

“I wanted to ask as many questions about it as possible,” she says, “so in the novel I look at what one version of reality might compare to another.

“Different possibilities intrigue me – the novel begins with one type of path and hopefully ends with the possibility that things could be different.”

A desire to explore different paths off the page has helped fuel the writer’s curiosity, with his stories invariably inspired by travel – his 2017 debut novel, under the almond treetook root after sitting in a cramped carriage of a train crossing Central Asia.

She had been thinking about the unpredictable nature of life’s journeys in general – and the journeys some people never wish to take – when she began to chart her story of a refugee family fleeing Afghanistan and the catastrophic effects of war and displacement.

It’s a subject the Cambridge graduate – she studied modern and medieval languages ​​and literature and also holds an MA in global politics – feels deeply about, having worked with the Global Girls Fund and as director of PEN International. .

“I write full time now, but I still have several charities that I’m involved with and care about,” she says.

“My interest in education projects continues and I have done a school building project in Bangladesh – it’s kind of a passion project.

“Through my work at PEN, I have had the privilege of working with many courageous and resilient people around the world – people in need of refuge and protection who often risk imprisonment or flee torture.

“Over the years, I have also met many young people affected by conflict and unable to go to school. Education is the key to future chances in life.”

Listening to many heartbreaking stories of families forced to leave their homes and their lives, what amazed her most, she says, was the “resilience of the human spirit” and an instinctive determination to carry on.

She writes from two homes – one in London and another in Majorca where her 11-year-old daughter goes to school – so uses an empathetic imagination when writing about issues such as homelessness and abandonment. of his young hero.

Exotic settings, on the other hand, tend to be inspired by real-life travel experiences.

“Libya is one of those places you can’t visit right now, so that’s the challenge when you write about it, but I’ve been to North Africa and traveled in the desert” , says McVeigh, a former polyglot student. of the Royal Court Theater Young Writers Programme.

“I camped under the stars and traveled with the Bedouins, so I guess that connection was already there.

“Then I was looking for what might be the most opposite setting for the other narrative strand and my curiosity was aroused when I read that the land mass in southern Louisiana was disappearing faster than any other place on Earth. due to rising waters.

“When I started to really look at all of this, I discovered so many things that had kind of a synergy with Lenny’s story. It’s really a fascinating part of the world – ‘Roseville’ in the book is a imaginary place, of course, but there are sinkholes in Louisiana and people living along the strip dubbed “Cancer Alley” who are truly affected by serious environmental challenges.”

Yet far from the problems faced by the modern world in the 21st century, history has been modeled on an ancient – The little Prince – written by McVeigh’s favorite childhood author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

“I was living off the coast of North Africa, near where the French author is said to have flown planes – he was an aviator and a writer – and one of the things that happened in his life was to crash one of his planes in the Libyan desert,” she said.

“He survived alone for a few days, then was rescued by a Bedouin on a camel – and that, for me, became the pathway to the novel.

“All of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s books are thoughtful, quite philosophical meditations on life, humanity and our relationship to the planet, so I had a certain sympathy for this kind of feeling and I wanted explore it in a different way through Lenny, who is a sort of mirror child of the Little Prince.”

In addition to striving – “as is the meaning of all literature” – to encourage us to “think about the world, how it works and how we connect to each other”, she lets us do what we want. with a deliberately ambiguous ending.

“Everything is subject to interpretation and everyone will bring their own interpretation,” she teases.

“And that’s the power of the reader, as well as the imagination of the writer.”

Lenny by Laura McVeigh, published by New Island, is available now. The Belfast book launch takes place at the No Alibis bookshop, Botanic Avenue, on April 23 at 2 p.m.

Lola R. McClure