South Surrey novelist David Slater’s The Biscuit Barrel (the cookie jar, in North American parlance) is, pardon the pun, well worth dipping into.
Told in sure, fast-moving prose, it’s a bittersweet love story, an exotic, continent-spanning adventure and a mystery rolled into one.
In the uncertain world of self-published fiction, that makes the novel – currently available at Save-On Foods at Southpoint and PriceSmart Semiahmoo Centre – a rare bird indeed.
There’s also a timeliness to the book, which recaptures the atmosphere of the First World War years at the 95th anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars.”
While Slater, a self-confessed military history buff, has made sure some of the grim facts and details are there, don’t expect a dry, historical tome, or an anguished revisit of the brutal course of history.
The retired bank and mining executive, a late arrival to the world of writing fiction, is – on paper and in real life – a born story-spinner. And his novel drops the reader into another time and place with the immediacy of a big-screen movie.
It’s not a new comparison to him.
“Everybody who’s read it says ‘this ought to be a film!’” he exclaims, heartily, his voice still bearing the slight Afrikaans lilt that confirms he is a native of Rhodesia – now known as Zimbabwe.
The Biscuit Barrel does seem to have all the cinematic elements – starting with a colourful evocation of the sights and feel of colonial southern Africa and the fascination of a police procedural involving Slater’s protagonist, Hastings Follett, a young English police trooper, and his Matebele constable, Samuel Kumalo, who emerges as a compelling character.
The vividness only intensifies as the novel follows Follett into a steamy love triangle, complete with explicit sex scenes; into intrigue, tragedy and the violence of war, both in Africa and on the Western Front; and a love affair with a Parisian chanteuse who survived the sinking of the Titanic.
The climax of the story comes amid the doom-laden drama of war in the air, as the protagonist becomes a pilot in a fighter-bomber squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps; and in the final touching revelations of letters sealed up for decades in the Wedgewood china biscuit barrel of the title.
It may sound like a fanciful catalogue, but, oddly, the main framework of the story is true – fleshed out by Slater with a blend of genuine history, careful research and imaginative recreation.
Letters – kept in just such a biscuit barrel on his grandparents’ sideboard – did find their way into his possession after his mother died, as he became custodian of family photographs and memorabilia.
The letters were written by a man named Hastings, who knew his grandparents, Eddie and Bella Evans in Penhalonga, Rhodesia before the First World War – and later become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.
And Slater’s question of a relative, during a visit to Cape Town in South Africa, “who was Hastings?” did elicit much of the family legend that became the basis of the story.
“I used some poetic license,” Slater acknowledges, about the picture of the times he has created in The Biscuit Barrel. He incorporates some famous figures who were on the scene in the Paris of 1918 – people like American authors John Dos Passos and e.e. Cummings – and has woven in some unrelated stories of the era, from Europe, Africa and the U.S., which also have a factual basis.
“That’s why I call it a work of fiction,” he says, adding that while Eddie and Bella Evans become characters in the tale, he has changed the names of other major players subtly to protect real-life identities.
Slater, who became a military buff after his national service in the Rhodesian army, met and married his wife, Aletta, while they were still in Africa. They have five grandchildren, through daughters Michelle and Lisa, who both live in the White Rock-South Surrey area.
An accountant-turned-banker, he was recruited by the Bank of Montreal in 1980 and worked for them in both Toronto and Vancouver.
After a stint with the Dutch banking group ABN-Amro, specializing in mining financing projects, he became president and CEO of Hillsborough Resources in 1998 and stayed with the company until it was taken over in 2000, and he retired.
A radio-controlled aircraft enthusiast, Slater is also a keen musician and plays keyboards in a local folk-pop group, The Walkers, with friends John Wright and Chuck Ingraham.
“John and I write three quarters of the songs we play,” he says.
In fact, it’s only been in the last three years that he’s considered himself a writer of prose, he adds.
“I was always a poet and a songwriter. My other published book, Dirges and Doggerel, is all the poetry I’ve written, between 1966 and 2012. Dirges and Doggerel is kind of a self-deprecating way of saying I’m not Shelley or Keats – it’s narrative verse.”
But he has tried the novel form before, he admits.
“The Biscuit Barrel is actually my fifth attempt – I have four books in boxes, one that got to Chapter 1, one that made it to Chapter 7. After that I took some good advice, to write an outline chapter by chapter and to set yourself a daily limit.
I set mine at 3,000 words a day and wrote it in five weeks.”
He already has two new novels ready for publication, one a story of international business intrigue, and the other picking up the adventures of native constable Samuel Kumalo from where The Biscuit Barrel ends, first in what he says will be a series of period mysteries with an African setting.