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Newcastle author Diana Finley's debut novel draws on family's First World War experiences

Newcastle author Diana Finley's 100-year saga coincides with the centenary of the First World War

Diana at home with her novel
Diana at home with her novel

Novelist Diana Finley is making her debut at the age of 65 with an epic story that spans 100 years of one woman’s life set against the backdrop of war.

The publication of The Loneliness of Survival, tying in nicely with commemorations marking the start of the First World War, is a tale that follows its heroine from Austria and draws from Diana’s family history.

But only to an extent, points out Diana, from Newcastle. While it echoes her late mother’s experiences as a war-time refugee fleeing Nazi Europe, this, her first adult novel, is first and foremost a work of fiction, albeit one which creates a world that feels so real it’s having quite an emotional impact on its first readers.

“Some people have said they were moved to tears,” says the grandmother-of-one who found the story “wrote itself”. “There’s great trauma but in the end I feel it’s a positive story.”

It opens with the main character Anna, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, celebrating her 100th birthday and then moves back in time to explore her journey from birth in 1914 and her secure childhood until the rise of the Nazis and increasing anti-Semitism blights her life.

Clearly it’s an emotional tale, involving displacement, loss and loneliness and the death of Anna’s first husband in Auschwitz and she has a secret too which haunts her throughout a life affected by two world wars.

Diana Finley in her garden with her novel set in WW1
Diana Finley in her garden with her novel set in WW1

But there’s also much warmth and love, as she falls for British army officer Sam, whom she meets when she escapes to Palestine. Then, she accompanies him on a posting to occupied Germany, adding all sorts of complex layers to her new family life.

For the backdrop of her novel, Diana drew from the war-time struggles as a Jewish refugee experienced by her mother who died a couple of years ago at the age of 101.

One of four siblings in Austria displaced by the war, she lost her first husband and met Diana’s father, an Englishman in the army, while in Palestine but that’s the book’s only real link.

Diana, who spent a lot of her young life abroad, says of her mother: “She was born in Vienna in 1911 and was a young adult at the time the Nazis were coming to power and she had to leave Vienna with her first husband.

“They were Jewish and had to leave or risk being imprisoned. Some of her family were lost in the Holocaust.

“She went through all the disruption of life of a refugee which obviously gave me a lot of ideas and it’s also based on things I saw and heard growing up but this isn’t a memoir, it’s a novel.”

She’s delighted at the early feedback to her newly-published book which took shape from sections developed at a local authority creative writing class. Without an agent, she faced the usual challenge of finding a publisher and when Indigo Dreams Publishing accepted it “you could have heard me shrieking down the road”!

Initially Diana was a copy writer, writing travel blurb for students before becoming a writer of children’s information books.

She moved to the region from London after visiting the South Tyne Valley on honeymoon when she and her new husband spotted an empty house they fell in love with onw sight and impulsively put in an offer.

Diana Finley at home in Longbenton
Diana Finley at home in Longbenton

“We saw a little house up on the hillside and thought ‘wow, we want to live there’! It was beautiful,” she recalls.

Her husband, who worked for voluntary agencies, was able to transfer his job to the region and they began their new life in the isolated idyll - a huge contrast to the bustle of life in the capital.

“It was a huge change of a scene!” she laughs. “Our nearest neighbours were farmers who lived across two fields.”

But she made great friends in the community where she went on to bring up two sons: “In the winter I’d take them down to the village shop on a sledge.”

She started writing children’s stories but just did not have the time to take it any further.

The family eventually moved to Newcastle, to escape costly improvements needed to the house and to be closer to her husband’s work, then Diana did a four year degree course to re-train as a speech and language therapist which saw her work in Northumberland and Sunderland, specialising in children with autism.

Now retired, and having achieved an MA in creative writing - with distinction - at Newcastle University, she is writing full-time, while also helping the Royal Voluntary Service and Newcastle libraries to deliver books to disabled and elderly people living in Benwell and Heaton.

Next up will be a story about a lost child. “This one is completely different, a psychological thriller,” she says.

The Loneliness of Survival, £8.99, is available from www.indigodreamsbookshop.com , on Kindle, and booksellers including Waterstone’s and WHSmith. Diana will be taking part in a reading, question and answer session and book-signing at a First World War-focused event at the Central Library in Newcastle on December 5. Visit www.dianafinley.com

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