Must-read of the week: The Lands of de Gressier

20 years in the making, author C. S. Bunker’s debut novel, The Lands of de Gressier, is more than worth the wait…

By Timothy Arden

We are but a few weeks into 2021 yet, already, we have a clear contender for the best novel of the year: The Lands of De Gressier. Simply put, this expansive work has everything a reader could ask for from a book – romance, suspense, intrigue, crime, warfare, tragedy, high drama, and much more besides.

The debut novel of author C. S. Bunker, it is the first instalment of an epic multi-generational family saga that will ultimately cover one hundred years from 1914 to 2014. The ‘de Gressier’ saga will share the history of central characters Penrose and Juliette Dovingdon, and their descendants, as they fight for their family and their vineyards’ survival during two World Wars, and the trials and tribulations posed by the changing times thereafter.

The Lands of De Gressier covers the years 1913 to 1935, and opens in 1925, when patriarch Col. Sir Stoddart Dovingdon – father to Penrose and his sister, Juliette – arranges for two gold pocket watches bearing the family crest to be sent to his daughter. Why he should be doing this, and why the letter accompanying the gifts should be, to him, the most precious part of the package, we will come to learn. What we do know from the author is that these two watches create the thread which weaves throughout not only this novel but all four books in the series.

The story then steps back to the start of the First World War, when both Penrose and Juliette determine to serve their country in its hour of need. Juliette abandons her studies at Cambridge University to become a nurse, enrolling at London Nursing School. Coming from a wealthy family, and being highly intelligent, she is singled out as a “toff” by her fellow nursing students but is soon accepted as she excels at her new vocation. While she had initially planned to stay in Britain, she is urged to volunteer in France where there is a desperate shortage of nurses at the clearing hospitals and dressing stations just behind enemy lines. Being strong-willed and courageous – a family trait – she accepts the position.

Penrose, meanwhile, leaves a plum government post helping finance the war to join the Royal Engineers, where his analytical mind can be put to best use. He is quickly promoted to the rank of captain and is sent by the Army for training to command a balloon company, tasked with observing enemy movements and directing artillery bombardments from high above the trenches.

As the war progresses, Penrose is promoted to major, which he finds somewhat hard to fathom given his relative lack of military experience. He finds a new comrade, and confidant, in Captain Étienne Guégan of the French Army, whom he first meets to discuss how to deal with a troublesome German sniper in French-controlled territory.

Unlike Penrose, Étienne had always planned on a military career despite being the son of a famed French wine-producing family that owned the titular de Gressier vineyards in Bordeaux. With his two elder brothers now dead, he is first in line to inherit the business when the war comes to an end.

Étienne and Penrose build a strong working relationship but Penrose’s good fortunes take a decided turn for the worse when, in 1918, his orders given at the Battle of Célieux Ridge – a strategic location that controlled access to Paris – put his own life at risk. Further, it creates a dilemma for the British and French armies, the Prime Minister and the King of England, and a page turner for the reader, anxious to find out what happens next.

Étienne and Juliette meet when rushing to come to Penrose’s help and fall in love, but Col. Dovingdon, for his own reasons, controversially decides he cannot help his son. Étienne and Juliette marry after the war ends and move to Château de Gressier, where they find the estate in a sorry state. It is under the de facto control of the vineyard’s general manager, Hugo Coudace, whose poor stewardship has left the business with significant problems.

The remainder of the novel focuses primarily on Étienne and Juliette as they attempt to wrest control from Coudace and restore de Gressier to its former glories. This is made all the more challenging for two reasons.

One of their biggest markets, the USA, collapses after prohibition is introduced in 1920 and, to try and circumvent this, Étienne begins dealing with a shady new business partner who has ties to the Mafia.

Further, on his return to Bordeaux, and at an Armistice Day church service, Étienne meets Dominique Bellanger, widowed with a young son. She is an old flame whose husband had been killed during the Battle at Célieux Ridge and in whose death both Étienne and his now brother-in-law, Penrose, had been complicit. And so begins a series of competing relationships between Dominique, Étienne and Juliette.

I won’t divulge anything more, except to say that a shocking murder is carried out and as the novel gallops towards its dramatic conclusion we follow the investigation of Inspector Henri Hilaire to find the culprit.

The Lands of De Gressier is more than 500 pages in length but is fast-moving throughout, packed with twists, turns and surprises aplenty that ensure you want to keep reading the next chapter. This sense of flow is aided by the book’s structure, with short chapters that focus, like in a movie, on one scene at a time, often told in the form of letters exchanged between characters.

The novel’s magnetic attraction is also helped by the engaging central storyline and the numerous clever sub-plots. Together, they more than live up to the novel’s billing as a ‘scandalous story of passion, betrayal and corruption’.

Finally, the main players make for compelling, complex and believable characters that you soon come to root for, or against. Penrose and Juliette are the beating heart of the dense novel and keep it aloft admirably.

Uniquely, author C. S. Bunker has chosen to make certain chapters of his work optional, depending on the reader’s tastes. These primarily concern the Battle at Célieux Ridge where those interested in military procedure will not want to miss a word, but it gives the choice to skip on to the emerging love triangle between Juliette, Étienne, and Dominique without losing anything essential to the appreciation of the wider narrative.

As you would expect of a saga, real-life historical figures and events are to be found throughout, weaved seamlessly into the story. Bunker spent a staggering 20 years in constructing his masterpiece and it is abundantly clear from the intricate detail that much of that time was spent in research.

The second in the series, The Vines of de Gressier, is set for release later this year and will surely be a must-buy for anyone who has read its predecessor. Beautifully, masterfully written, it represents an example of modern English literature at its best and is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of 2021’s must-reads and undoubtedly a TV series in the making.

The Lands of De Gressier by C. S. Bunker is published by YouCaxton Publications and is out now on Amazon priced £15.99 in paperback and £8.99 as an ebook.

www.degressier.com

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR C. S. BUNKER

We speak with author C. S. Bunker about the inspiration for his debut novel, The Lands of de Gressier, his connection to iconic director Alfred Hitchcock, and about how he was able to write his novel despite being severely dyslexic.

What inspired you to write a multi-generational family saga?

I found the similarities between Bordeaux in 1942, during the German occupation of France, and Moldova in 1992, after the Berlin Wall had come down, created a story I wanted to tell. Both were great wine-producing countries, and both were severely affected 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 found the 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 of a 100-year saga.

The ‘de Gressier Saga’ will ultimately span four books and one hundred years. What do you think is the appeal of such long-form stories for readers?

As author and reader, we share a common history. The events of the First World War, Second World War, and our modern history are familiar to us. They provide a common platform which enables an immediate bond to be created between book and reader. Also, there is the familiarity of the place, in this case, the vineyards of de Gressier. As the story of the different family characters unfold, they do against a backdrop with which the reader has become familiar.

How did you go about researching the time period covered in the first novel? What stood out to you most about the era?

My grandfather won the Military Medal in March 1918. Luckily, I have the citation which recorded his bravery. This 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 same area of France where he fought. I also attended a series of brilliant community lectures and battlefield tours organised by Herts at War. These studied the role of the Hertfordshire Regiment between 1914 and 1918 and were incredibly informative. I also read a huge amount of pertinent history, as my Billy bookcases will attest.

I think the thing which stood out for me most was the fighting approaches of the British and French commanders, and the way they led their soldiers. The British frequently rotated their troops. They were in the front line for a few days at a time before being relieved behind the lines for cooked food, showers, clean clothes, and even permitted home leave. This kept morale high as it gave everyone something to look forward to. The French committed their troops into the field where they stayed, attacking, and defending as necessary for much longer periods, leading to a sense of despair and poor morale.

The other notable aspects were the social changes. The new-found respect that the officers had for their men, for ‘they were in it together’; and, for the first time, the essential role that women played in the war effort, both of which were to have a profound effect when the war had ended.

You have severe dyslexia but your prose is without fault. What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing the novel and how did you overcome them?

At school, I sat at the bottom of the bottom form. I was criticised repeatedly for being careless, but the fact is that, as a dyslexic, words move around on the page when I try to read them, especially when reading out loud. Spelling is a nightmare. In my case, I also read what I think should be on the page and not always what is there. Luckily, I was supported throughout my professional career with a series of wonderful assistants, and they helped me in the early stages of writing my books. In the latter years, technology came to my aid with software like Grammarly and the spellchecker facility on Word. Also, I use the read-out-loud facility on Word to play back what I have actually written, and not what I think I have written. It means I can hear my mistakes. Of course, it does not spot the misspelling of similar-sounding words. In the final analysis, it is having a very supportive group of family and friends who are prepared to read, correct, and comment. I can say with confidence that it takes considerably more time for a person with dyslexia to write something intelligible than it takes someone without such a handicap.

There is a running theme of corruption through your novels. Why did you decide to explore this topic and what is the central message you wish to convey about this?

Two identical watches, wine, and corruption, are the common denominator in all four books. In The Lands of de Gressier and The Vines of de Gressier, which will be published later this year, I have two very different storylines based around, what I call, ‘good cause corruption’. We see this kind of corruption in our political life today.

During the last General Election, the UK’s two leading political parties clearly considered their opponent so evil, so dangerous, that they were prepared to say and do almost anything (their corruption) to keep themselves in power (their good cause). 

The problem with good cause corruption is that it steals justice, not from one person or a group of people, but from all mankind. It is a pernicious crime which is not taken seriously enough. To highlight the issue in my novels is a very modest contribution in highlighting a serious problem.

The book has optional chapters which readers can pass if they prefer. Where did this novel idea come from?

Foremost I am an entrepreneur, maybe more a “kamikaze entrepreneur” as my children would describe me! This characteristic meant that I needed to write a book which I thought readers would enjoy and have the potential to be a bestseller. With 70 per cent of novels purchased by women, it was critical to my objective that The Lands of de Gressier was a book which women would want to read. The feedback I got from the women in a panel of beta readers was that there was too much war.

They engaged with the characters, loved their stories, got cross by the surprises, and found the use of letters between the leading players a clever technique to move the story forward. Men readers in the beta group found the war aspect, particularly the events leading up to and surrounding the court martial of Penrose, interesting and enjoyable. I needed to find a mechanism to satisfy both audiences, and having optional chapters was my innovative solution.

As the author, what are you most proud of about your first novel?

I don’t think I am particularly proud other than to have The Lands of de Gressier published. I am pleased that the initial reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

There is a pleasure in reading the nice things people have written, such as, “The Lands of De Gressier is a brilliant book. We recommend it to everyone. It is a gripping page-turner that will have you hooked.” Other feedback I received included a reader declaring, “One of the best-written, most interesting and riveting books I have read. I couldn’t put it down (about three days reading at five to six hours a day).

I found the various stories beautifully intermingled. Clearly well researched.”, and, “Just finished The Lands of de Gressier, and I can’t wait to get into The Vines of de Gressier.”

Your novel is very filmic, especially in the sense that the chapters are quite enclosed in the same way that movies are broken into scenes. Why did you choose to write this way?

Perhaps it is in the genes for my grandmother’s cousin was Alfred Hitchcock – although I never met him.

In the early stages of developing the story, when I was heavily into my career, my writing was intermittent. I made use of the time spent on long plane journeys, waiting in airport lounges, or when wide awake in a hotel bedroom unable to sleep because of jet lag. These made me write in distinct scenes, as though I was looking on. It was only later that the separate scenes were stitched together to make the book, very much in the same way a film is made.

Your first novel has been twenty years in the making. What is the secret to being committed to the project over such a long time?

I was lucky in having an interesting story which I wanted to tell, where the pieces got built up over time, just as a complex crossword is created. Then, when the shape of the story was there, and the bulk of the chapters had been written, it required the discipline to sit at my desk for hour upon hour, writing, editing, and rewriting until I thought it was in a shape I could share with others. Then the criticisms came or, worse still, the silences, after which I had to pick myself up and start drafting, re-drafting, and editing all over again. Finally, when I thought it might be good enough, I had