Helen Matthews, author of the brilliant new psychological suspense The Girl in the Van shows the importance of settings in a novel and explains why you can take the girl out of Wales, but you can’t take Wales out of the girl
I was born in Cardiff and stayed there until I went to university in Liverpool. After that, I went travelling then settled in London. Some years later, I changed career and my husband and children relocated with me to rural Hampshire. So it’s quite a few decades since I lived in Wales.
I left Wales but Wales has never left me. I haven’t cut my ties, nor would I want to. Being Welsh is more than a nationality, it’s an identity that grips you and won’t let you go. In my new novel The Girl in the Van, published on 17 March by Darkstroke Books, the central character, Laura flees her home in Penarth (a coastal town near Cardiff) and moves to London following an unspeakable tragedy. These are Laura’s feelings as she returns to Wales for the first time in two years:
I’m driving west from London when the bridge across the River Severn, dividing England from Wales, looms into view. My heart lifts. After being uprooted, the pull of Wales is a visceral thing. There’s a name for it: hiraeth – a kind of call to your inner self from a half-forgotten place or time. I’m surprised it still has this power. When I fled Wales two years ago, I was desperate to escape everything from my old life.
The bridge is painted a pastel shade of green. When she was young, Ellie used to say “It’s all minty”. Today the spearmint hue chokes me with memories. I’m making a detour and visiting my mother in Cardiff. None of what’s happened is Mum’s fault, but she blames herself because it happened on her birthday. She’d love to take away my anguish and carry the burden for me, but she can’t do that. No one can.
The characters in my novels aren’t me but sometimes I give them thoughts and feelings I’ve experienced personally. And why not? Those feelings are authentic.
Returning to Wales or even hearing a snatch of music sung by a male voice choir sparks strong emotions if you’re Welsh-in-exile. My close family has dwindled or moved away but I still have good friends, a love of the coast, mountains and people and, of course, the rugby. Before the pandemic, I usually made it to one Six Nations rugby match in Cardiff each year.
In two of my three previous novels. I’ve featured Welsh main characters. My debut After Leaving the Village juxtaposes the lives of two women, one from a village in Albania; the other, Kate, a journalist, who grew up in a village in Wales. Desperate to wean her son off online gaming, Kate tries to recreate the feeling of a village community on her London street. Some scenes are set in West Wales where Kate grew up and this passage describes the scenery around a church where she goes to visit the grave of a friend from her youth.
At the next crossroads, the signpost has been uprooted and dumped in the hedge. There are few landmarks and it’s hard to be sure which way the arrows were pointing originally. Taking a wild guess, she turns inland and follows the road uphill, changing down to a lower gear. Her guess proves right. As she approaches the brow of the hill the grey stone tower of Eglwys Dewi Sant comes into view. The church is situated at the highest point, with panoramic views over the countryside and out to sea. Exposed to the elements, it seems to be floating on an ocean of fields. Sun, the colour of weak tea, peers through the clouds painting the landscape in its autumn colours. Shrubs and bare trees encircle the churchyard; all the trees are bent over at the same angle, backs to the Atlantic they bow their heads towards England, towards Mecca.
She could just keep driving straight on past but she doesn’t. She parks untidily, hops out, runs up the worn steps under the lychgate and into the church yard to find Rhys’s grave.
Kate’s village is fictional but has elements of many places in Wales I’ve visited. In The Girl in the Van I’ve been bolder and risked setting scenes in real places in Wales. (Roads, house names and the school where Laura taught are made up – I wouldn’t want to offend).
If you can get past the scary stuff, you could use The Girl in the Van for as a travel guide for a mini-break. Start off just outside Cardiff and visit the fascinating Welsh Folk museum at St Fagans, where ancient houses, churches and farms have been transported from all over Wales and reconstructed on site. In my novel, this is where Laura meets her former partner, Gareth for a showdown.
You won’t be able to visit the actual house where Laura goes to see her mum but it’s actually my childhood home, where every room was painted a different shade of blue, as I’ve described. Instead, you could go to the Victorian seaside town of Penarth, where Laura once lived with Gareth and Ellie.
Sun beat down on the pebble beach where a group of youngsters about Ellie’s age were playing ball games. Elderly couples were strolling along the promenade, and near the entrance to the Victorian pier a young mum was sharing her takeaway fish and chips with a child in a pushchair. The sea sparkled, and the view across the Bristol Channel to the nature reserve islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm made me unbearably sad. I turned my face inland to the terrace of shops and cafés, painted in blue, yellow and shocking pink.
End your mini-break in Tenby, stopping on the way to visit Dylan Thomas’s boathouse home and writing shed at Laugharne. It’s inspiring to stand in the spot where one of Wales’s literary giants created his poetry and there are some great coastal path walks in the area.
The Girl in the Van opens in Tenby with its fabulous beaches, offshore islands, Georgian architecture and connections to famous people marked by blue plaques. Laura has travelled in her secondhand campervan to stay on a campsite with a group of strangers. It’s here she meets (or rather discovers) Miriana, who is cowering in her van. Who or what is Miriana hiding from? Why does Laura’s life take a strange and dangerous turn when their paths cross?
Despite featuring stunning locations, The Girl in the Van is a chilling suspense thriller. As you’d expect, part of the action takes place in dark or dingy settings – a rough estate in Croydon; a drug addict’s home in a rundown area of Newport. In fiction, as in life, bad and frightening things happen to good people and sometimes in beautiful places. There’s no template for this so expect to read about love and loss, grief and recovery, terror and resilience, light and shade as the characters guide you to a nail-biting and terrifying climax.
About the book
A tormented mother. An abandoned girl. A deadly game of survival.
What happened to Ellie?
Traumatised by events, Ellie’s mother, Laura, can’t bear to stay in the Welsh seaside town where she lives with her partner, Gareth. She escapes to London, breaking all ties with him, and refusing to tell anyone her new address.
After two years of living alone and working in a mundane job, Laura buys an old campervan and joins a singles holiday. Here, she meets Miriana, a teenage girl who bears a chilling resemblance to Ellie. As Laura uncovers Miriana’s story, she’s shocked by the parallels to her own life.
But stories can be dangerous, and someone out there will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about Ellie from coming out…
You can download The Girl in the Van or buy the paperback here
About the Author
Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Her latest novel The Girl in the Van was published on 17 March by Darkstroke Books. Previous novels include suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, which won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival, and was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press. Her third novel Façade was published by Darkstroke Books in 2020.
Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.
She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.