Today’s guest blog post is going to make you want to drop everything and book a ticket to Europe, where you will meander through France, Germany, Austria and end up lounging on the gorgeous Lake Balaton in Hungary. Don’t have the time or the money? Just read Emylia Hall’s debut novel, The Book of Summers, which is on sale today. As her essay below demonstrates, Hall is a writer who knows how to beautifully evoke a setting.
The Book of Summers is about an Englishwoman, Beth Lowe, and her family trips to Hungary—joyous occasions that are tainted by secrets and a mother’s painful decision. The book was inspired by Hall’s own family vacations. Here, she describes why Hungary captured her imagination.
guest post by Emylia Hall
In 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall came down, I visited Hungary for the first time. I was 11 years old and my sister was 13. My mother, who was born in England to Hungarian parents, was keen to explore the land of her roots, and my father agreed to drive us across France, Germany, Austria and into Hungary. The trip took a month, and it became the first of many. Every summer, for the next seven or eight years, we’d pack up the car and go to Hungary.
I treasure my memories from these holidays. The journey was an adventure as much as the destination. We’d stay at farmhouse guesthouses in France, eating at communal supper tables and swapping stories with Belgian cyclists over plates of roasted wild boar. In Germany we’d drive through wine country, my father picking small hotels in tiny vineyard villages, the car packed to the gills with local vintages to take home. And we’d whip along Austrian mountain roads, hearing the jangle of cowbells, looking forward to our next stopover and our next plate of Wiener Schnitzel. Meanwhile, Hungary lay like a promised land; we’d visit the artists’ town of Szentendre, with its twisting streets, brightly painted buildings and folksy feel. The endless plains, where mirages rose out of the dust and troops of longhorn cattle and fleet-footed horses turned to watch us pass. And Lake Balaton—my favourite place of all. At 50 miles long and 10 across, it’s dubbed the Hungarian Sea. The sun always seemed to shine brighter at Balaton as I floated on a lilo, a book resting on my chest, my skin growing steadily browner.
These sun-kissed memories became the inspiration for The Book of Summers. Against this backdrop I wanted to capture long, hot days, the sparkle of a new country, the trepidations and excitements of childhood and adolescence. A novel is a wonderful place in which to scatter observations and curious details; nothing is wasted. As I began to write, I found the act of recollection easy, taking myself back to precise yet passing moments; the choosing of a watermelon from a roadside kiosk, or a particular supper at a border-town restaurant, the fire on our plates and in our bellies. Our family photo albums proved helpful—my father always recorded our trips with meticulous detail—but much of the vivid imagery and moments of colour came from simply closing my eyes and remembering, letting myself drift back to those golden days of childhood.
The last time I visited Hungary was in the summer of 2009, as I was working on an early draft of The Book of Summers. I took my notebooks with me, and set myself up on a terrace overlooking Lake Balaton. It was inspiring to be “on location,” and I let as much of the place seep into my writing as possible. But most of all I enjoyed the romantic idea of writing about Hungary while in Hungary, because the old holidays had already proven themselves indelible, and were much more invaluable to the writing process. I think back to those trips now, the child-me, looking around in wonder, little knowing that the sights and sounds that I found so enthralling would one day work their way into a novel. Would, in fact, be its beating heart. For me, there’s something magical in that.