As Secrets of the Italian Island opens, Mia, a 32-year-old researcher, is grieving the recent death of her grandmother, Lucy, who raised Mia all by herself. As Mia goes through her grandmother’s things in preparation for possibly selling the house, she comes across some surprising items that Lucy clearly intended for her to find. Lucy had never told Mia about the sixteenth-century Italian castle where she spent one gorgeous summer – or about the terrible mistake she made as World War Two raged. The discoveries spur Mia to travel to Italy and sneak onto that still-private island, so she can learn the truth about Lucy’s actions and hopefully clear her name.
So how did I end up setting the story in a castle, of all places? The short answer is that I’ve always loved remote settings, and I adore castles. So when I set out to write this book, I knew I wanted to set it a least partially in a centuries-old European castle with a fascinating history. But what facts could help me build this castle setting? And how would the castle figure into the story?
With some guidance and suggestions from my wonderful editor, who is based in London, I started to browse the internet in search of images of medieval and medieval-style castles. Soon, I came upon a range of possibilities, including the Chateau de Costaérès, which sits on a private island in the French region of Brittany. The castle, I learned from a variety of sources, was the brainchild of Bruno Abakanowicz, a Polish mathematician and inventor who lived from 1852 to 1900, and who retired to the island toward the end of the nineteenth century. Evidently Abakanowicz frequently hosted artists, writers and scientists at his chateau. In fact, the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote his top-selling book, Quo Vadis, there. Sienkiewicz would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.
More detailed information about the castle is not easy to come by, although sources report that it was seized by the Nazis during World War Two and suffered damage. Details about Abakanowicz’s family are also sketchy, but evidently in 1883 Abakanowicz had a daughter, who died in Auschwitz.
The castle remains standing today, although it’s still privately owned and off limits to tourists. But its stunning pink-granite façade can be viewed from the coastline. And its image appears on postcards and many tourist-oriented websites.
After reading all the accounts I could find, I was struck by the idea of a castle that attracted brilliant and talented people who would be awed by the beauty of their surroundings. And I was moved by the way such a fantastic and inspiring place could be destroyed by war and brutality. Ultimately it felt right to me to set my fictional castle in in the Mediterranean off the Italian coast, and to create a fictional owner—a brilliant but desperately lonely recluse, torn by the breakup years earlier of his family, who’s ultimately drawn out of his shell just days before a Nazi invasion. I further imagined that three sisters would come onto the island in search of an invention they desperately needed, and that when the castle came under attack, the sisters would be separated.
And one sister would make a mistake with long-reaching consequences, which would only be resolved when our modern-day, Mia, arrives in search of the truth.
For me, writing a novel is about trying to answer questions that seem unanswerable. And several challenging questions came to my mind as I considered the Chateau de Costaérès and then let my imagination take flight. I asked myself: how do we, as human beings living in the real world, accept that something wonderful may be destroyed? How do we still have hope, in the face such a catastrophic outcome? And what is the antidote to the worst of human nature?
Who knows why this castle, and no other, spurred the story I ended up telling? I think it’s impossible ever truly know. Imagination is a mysterious thing! What I can say is that I’m so glad I came upon story of the Chateau de Costaérès. It’s a place that now feels very close to my heart. I hope I get to visit that region of France one day, and look out onto that pink-granite castle, which proved so consequential to history and so inspiring to me.
Barbara Josselsohn is the author of Secrets of the Italian Island, published by Bookouture.