Could author C. S. Bunker’s debut novel, The Lands of de Gressier, be one of 2021’s must-reads? Reviewer Simon Taylor certainly thinks so…
By Simon Taylor
Let me say first of all that The Lands of de Gressier is an utterly engrossing novel. I found it hard to put down. It’s a story of a family impacted by war and its aftermath. It has all the essential ingredients even the most demanding of readers would require. Romance, check; tragedy, check; suspense, crime, warfare, and lashings of melodrama? All present and correct.
The Lands of de Gressier is the first instalment of the ‘de Gressier’ series of standalone books. There will be four books in all, taking in a century (from 1914 to 2014) and covering the lives of siblings Penrose and Juliette Dovingdon, and their descendants, as they fight for their family and their vineyard’s survival. In the process, they will endure two World Wars as well as the myriad of twists of fate that come with the changing times.
All four books are also connected by a pair of gold and diamond pocket watches engraved with the family crest. And this is where The Lands of de Gressier starts, with these family heirlooms being commissioned by Col. Sir Stoddart Dovingdon for reasons which become clear later in the story.
Its author, C. S. Bunker, has invested a whopping 20 years in creating this literary masterwork. I suspect that much of this time was spent on historical research for The Lands of de Gressier includes real-life historical figures and events which are expertly blended into the storyline in a vivid and informative way. It is a remarkable achievement.
The story starts in the early days of the First World War, when Penrose and his debutant sister, Juliette, feel compelled to join the war effort.
Juliette leaves her studies at Cambridge University to train as a nurse at The London Nursing School, but it is a turn of fate which sees her in France serving in dressing stations and clearing hospitals.
Meanwhile, her brother, Penrose, leaves his job in the Treasury and enlists with the Royal Engineers expecting to be involved in code breaking and intelligence. Instead, he is quickly promoted to the rank of captain and is put in charge of a balloon company on the battlefields of the Western Front which is suffering from a high casualty rate.
Penrose’s meteoric rise continues with promotion to major. He makes a new friend, Capitaine Étienne Guégan of the French Army, whom he first meets as part of the informal backchannel set up by the local commanders to share intelligence. The tension in the passage where Penrose and his men have to get past a wooded area containing a sniper to meet with Étienne, is especially palpable.
Étienne is heir to the famous de Gressier vineyards in Bordeaux. He and Penrose strike up an immediate camaraderie allowing Étienne to call on Penrose, and his balloon company’s support for the French army at the Battle of Verdun.
In March 1918, the Germans breakout from behind the Hindenburg Line and attack in force. One of the subsequent battles is fought at Célieux Ridge where Penrose is the most senior officer. Orders he gives at this battle create serious problems for Penrose. This fascinating subplot proves to be a real page-turner. I was compelled to read chapter after chapter to learn what would happen next.
Étienne and Juliette both come to Penrose’s aid. They become acquainted and fall in love. Meanwhile, Col. Dovingdon decides he cannot help his son, feeling bound not to interfere in the affairs of his precious army; thus giving rise to one of the moral and ethical dilemmas which are a common feature of Bunker’s writing. Should one man be killed to save one million is a question we are asked on the back cover of the book.
Étienne and Juliette wed after the war and relocate to Château de Gressier, where they find the once-beautiful estate in a shocking condition. After the horrors of war, you would be forgiven for thinking the rest of the book would be an anti-climax, but far from it! The domestic drama presented as Étienne and Juliette attempt to restore the de Gressier business, is just as absorbing.
This is further dialled up when Étienne enters into an uneasy alliance with a business partner who has connections to the Mafia. He gives Étienne an opportunity to start selling his wine once again to the United States, a market which had just been shut to him by the newly introduced Prohibition Act. It is another ethical dilemma referred to on the book cover: should the law be broken to keep the family business alive and their community in jobs?
Just as Étienne is coming to terms with the problems of running the de Gressier Estate, he meets Dominique Bellanger at a memorial service. Widowed with a young child, Dominique lost her husband in and action in which both Étienne and his now brother-in-law, Penrose, were involved. Then follows the discovery of secrets as explosive as the shells still littering the battlefields.
The final section of the novel deals with an unexpected and horrific murder which, once again, throws the lives of those living at Château de Gressier into turmoil while introducing the interesting character of Insp. Henri Hilaire.
The Lands of de Gressier maintains a brisk pace throughout, punctuated with a wealth of twists and turns which keep the reader on their toes and glued to the page.
The author’s style is to break the narrative down into short, focused chapters sharing one scene at a time. It’s a common film technique and, given that the author is a distant relative of none other than the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, I can’t but wonder if this cinematic know-how has been transmitted down the family line.
Indeed, with the author’s keen eye for detail and expert balance between the characters’ experiences and the varied backdrops they find themselves in, this is surely a novel crying out for cinematic adaptation. Hollywood, take note!
At its core, the novel is a well-written, well-conceived historical romance. It will appeal to men and women equally in its intelligent exploration of scandal, passion, betrayal and corruption. These themes are spread throughout the central plot and the many subplots, and are carried through by believable, and appealing characters – especially the four who take centre stage: Penrose, Juliette, Étienne and Dominique.
Interestingly, C. S. Bunker has made certain chapters of his novel optional, depending on the reader’s tastes. These primarily concern the Battle at Célieux Ridge, where those interested in military procedure will savour the rich detail. If that’s not your cup of tea, however, you can happily move on to the complex relationships between a cast of strong and compelling characters coming to terms with post-war events.
The next book in the series, The Vines of de Gressier, will arrive later this year – and not a moment too soon — but, if you want an unmissable, escapist read of wine, women, and warriors to tide you through lockdown, then The Lands of de Gressier is a must buy!
Exclusive interview with author C. S. Bunker
Debut author C. S. Bunker reveals how the idea for his epic novel The Lands of de Gressier came about, the research required to write a complex family saga, and the secrets of a great read.
Q. How did the idea for your novel come about?
A. I found the similarities between Bordeaux in 1942, during the German occupation of France, and Moldova in 1992, which I visited just after the Berlin Wall had come down, created a story that I wanted to tell. Both were great wine-producing countries, and both were severely impacted by war, foreign occupation, and corruption. It was when my son wrote a song called ‘Hero’, which told of a pilot wanting to be a hero for the woman he loved, that I discovered a mechanism to link the history of these two countries through a series of intertwined love stories. Of course, the events in 1939-45 in both Western and Eastern Europe are grounded in the Great War of 1914-18, so it was natural that 1914 became the starting point for The Lands of de Gressier and the entry point for my 100-year saga.
The novel is impressively detailed in its depiction of historical events and real-life historical figures. How did you go about researching the period?
A. My grandfather won the Military Medal in March 1918. It was this which first grabbed my interest in the history of World War One. His citation enabled me to do the research necessary to visit his battlefield. The Battle of Célieux Ridge, referred to in The Lands of De Gressier, takes place in this area of France. I also attended a series of brilliant community lectures and battlefield tours organised by Herts at War which studied the role of the Hertfordshire Regiment between 1914 and 1918. They were incredibly informative. I wanted my story to involve a unit about which little had been written. This took me to the work of the Balloon Corps. I then read extensively. For example, I bought and studied a copy of the 1896 Manual of Military Ballooning. To make sure I got the events at the court martial correct, I purchased a second-hand copy of The King’s Regulations and Order for the Army, published on 1st August, 1914, just four days before World War One started.
Q. You have dyslexia but were able to write an expansive saga. How did you do it?
A. I wrote firstly in longhand to get the basic shape of the story I wanted to tell. Most of this longhand writing would take place wherever I happened to be: on a train, in an airport lounge or hotel bedroom. I would then dictate what I had written and send it to a transcription service. Later, I dictated directly into transcription software. I used spellchecker software like Grammarly, and the read-out-loud facilities on Word to play back and hear what I had actually written, and not what I thought I had written. It meant I could hear my mistakes. Of course, it does not spot the misspelling of similar-sounding words. In the final analysis, it is all thanks to having a wonderful set of family and friends who are prepared to read, correct and comment on my writing.
Q. One of the novel’s central themes is corruption. Why was this theme important for you to explore?
A. When you see corruption first hand, and then study its effect, you very quickly appreciate that it is one of the most pernicious evils of our time. Almost every poor country remains poor because of a failure to tackle the corruption which sits at the heart of its governance. When you see babies abandoned in orphanages, stuck in their filthy cots for hours, day upon day, while corrupt politicians and gangster bosses fight over the little wealth that is created for themselves, then you know something is desperately wrong. The problem with corruption is that it doesn’t steal from one person, or group of people, but from the whole of society. Further, it steals, not just physically but morally as well, as it normalises bad behaviour. In both The Lands of de Gressier, and its sequel The Vines of de Gressier, there are instances of what I call ‘good cause corruption’. If you want present-day examples, then you need to look no further than the 2019 UK General Election, or the 2020 US Presidential Election. It is obvious that, within each of the two main political parties, there is a profound belief that the other is such a threat to society that their good cause is to keep themselves in power and the other party out. Their corruption is that they are prepared to say and do almost anything in furtherance of their aims.
Q. The novel is unique in that it has chapters which readers are invited to skip if they aren’t interested in the sub-plot about Penrose’s court martial. How did this idea come about?
A. I shared early drafts of the books with some beta readers for comment and criticism. One of the dominant criticisms was that there was ‘too much war’. This comment was made mostly by women readers. Their opinion is important as they make up 70% of the book-buying market. The problem was that Major Penrose Dovingdon, one of the main characters in the book, was liked and supported by his soldiers, whereas he was disliked and unsupported by his fellow officers. It made him an ideal scapegoat when one was needed. To omit the reasons for the different attitudes would have harmed the wholeness of the book. I needed to keep the integrity of the story while making it a book which people wanted to read, and this was my solution.
Q. Do you think other authors should follow suit, dividing their novels up into sections that can be skipped if readers wish, and why do you think this is of value?
A. Marking chapters as optional was a neat solution to the problem I was facing. It is a mechanism which could help other authors, but it takes careful planning if it is to work. I think the main benefit is that it allows the reader to be the master of the book they are reading and not its slave. Novels should be read for pleasure and entertainment, and anything which helps a reader’s enjoyment must be a good thing.
Q. What would you like readers to come away with after reading your novel?
A. I want my readers to feel fully immersed in the lives of interesting people living at an interesting time. I want them to feel so engrossed that immediately they have finished one chapter they want to get on to the next. Above all, I want the reader to finish the book with a feeling of satisfaction: of being well entertained; of wanting to tell others about the book. If I have written a book which enables a vigorous conversation to take place at book clubs, which has been said to me more than once, then I will consider that an honour and a job well done.
Q. What do you think are the key elements that make for a gripping novel?
A. There needs to be a compelling storyline, and hopefully, more than one, and the characters must be engaging. You don’t necessarily have to like all of them, but they must be sufficiently interesting that you want to follow their story. I also think it is important for a novel to have twists, turns and surprises for, like life, little is linear, and nothing is straightforward.
Q. Who are the authors that you admire the most, and why?
A. My bookcases are full of factual history and historical biographies. I grew up reading the biographies of the Second World War. For example, the true stories of the brave men and women of Special Operations Executive like Yeo-Thomas, Odette Churchill and Violet Szarbo. There were books on the French Resistance, like Ten Thousand Eyes, and of course there were books which we now know through films like The Dambusters, The Longest Day, and The Great Escape. In terms of novels, I enjoyed John le Carré and all the books in his Karla Trilogy. I like Robert Harris’s writing and really enjoyed his books Ghost, Officer and a Spy, and more recently Munich. Of course, Hilary Mantel and her Wolf Hall/Thomas Cromwell trilogy are a must-read. I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell. And why did I like these books? Because each had compulsive characters and storylines which meant I couldn’t put them down.
Q. This novel is the first in a planned series. Without giving away any spoilers, what can readers expect next?
A. There are four books in the de Gressier saga, all written. The next book – The Vines of de Gressier – will be out just before Easter. It builds on the lives of the Dovingdon, Guégan and Bellanger families all found in The Lands of de Gressier. The second book deals with the challenges they face during the Second World War. However, true to a saga, every book builds on the previous one, each working towards a surprising big reveal in the last book. Hopefully, there is a climatic ‘oh no!’ moment towards the end when the reader realises where the stories in the four books have taken them.