What diminutive Wilhelmina Silver, the protagonist of Katherine Rundell’s new novel Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, lacks in stature she compensates for in physical prowess and a monstrous gusto for life. Born, raised and set free on Two Tree Hill Farm in Zimbabwe, her father encouraged a liberal lifestyle of tree climbing, horse riding, cartwheeling and a window without panes (all the better to see, smell and feel the sunbaked exoticism of Africa). When her father succumbs to malaria as her mother did years before, circumstances—namely a gold-digging twit named Cynthia Vincy—land Will in a prestigious girls school in London. Having spent all of her young wildcat life with rowdy boys on the farm, the company of ponytailed princesses proves to be more of a culture shock than London’s chilly clime. After a cruel prank, resourceful Will runs away from the school, determined to return to everything she loves 5,000 miles away, even if it entails street performing, foraging in rubbish bins and napping in Harrods.
When I speak to Rundell via Skype (Rundell lives in the U.K.), she graciously says, “I’m still a bit startled that anyone reads the book, so I’m so honored.” Her accent is that kind of liquid perfection that makes Anglophiles swoon, a fitting match for a writer whose prose style is lyrical, magical and beautifully constructed. Cartwheeling has an autobiographical quality. Like Will, Rundell also lived in Zimbabwe and experienced firsthand the disheartening retraction of the special freedoms it offered.
“We left Zimbabwe when I was 14,” says Rundell. “It was the darkest moment of my life by far because Zimbabwe is the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to. But also it afforded me a kind of freedom that I knew would be taken away from me the moment we went to Belgium.” She’s quick to interject diplomacy. “And Belgium is fine, Belgium is just fine, but Zimbabwe was a kind of magic. I don’t think I’ll ever quite recapture that kind of place, but it was a wonderful thing to have had.”
Having lived in more countries than many people dream of visiting, it’s only natural that multicultural exposure would affect, encourage and inspire Rundell’s writing.
“In the most practical terms, each time you live in a new country, you’d be slightly a stranger for six months or so,” says Rundell. “And in those ‘stranger months,’ you would do a lot of reading. So just the number of books I read would have been hugely increased by the fact that we didn’t know anyone whenever we first arrived in the country….Books were such an obvious sort of comfort to me that the kind of writing I aspired to is writing that is a kind of comfort. That’s what I’m aiming for.”
Will, who doesn’t bathe for two weeks so that she might keep the scent of red-dirt Africa in her hair, is anything but comfortable in London. She is the mismatched oil to London’s diluting water and resists its rules, deplores its conventions and is fearful that hate is beginning to fill her heart. Everything she loved about life—freedom, laughter, ease, sun—are absent in this gray land of common sense. What is deemed as appropriate behavior in one country (coddling a pet monkey or sleeping in a tree) is wildly inappropriate a couple of countries up the road.
I ask Rundell if Will would have been the same wily wildcat had she spent her childhood in England rather than Zimbabwe.
“The world is very much under your toes and your feet [in Zimbabwe] and you are aware of its presence in a way that you’re not if you grow up in a city,” she says. “Will, if she’d grown up in England, would have been tamer and maybe a little bit calmer.”
Here, Rundell pauses briefly before finding an inspiring and romantic summation of nature versus nurture. “My guess would be that you’re born with a kind of fire, and it’s the land you grow up in that shows you where to put it,” she says.
Like any crowd-pleasing underdog, Will’s fire is under threat of dousing by a nemesis, the aforementioned Vincy, who is all synthetic perfume, stilettos and greedy manipulation. She digs her manicured nails into British expat Capt. Browne, the owner of Two Tree Hill Farm, coercing him not only into marriage, but into selling the farm and subsequently exiling Will.
“She was the most fun to write,” Rundell says of Vincy. “She’s a bit of a pantomime villain at times, but I loved the idea of being allowed to write someone truly nasty. It’s like hiring an assassin. You get to say all the things that you wouldn’t dare say yourself.”
On the tail of the U.S. release of Cartwheeling, Rundell has three more children’s books under contract, teaches at Oxford and, when she can carve out some time, also is working on an adult novel. It’s a murder mystery “with some old people in it” and began as her authorial commentary on the mistreatment of the elderly in the U.K. Currently ensconced as she is in a metropolitan world of British academia and with her séjour in Africa over a dozen years past, would she be more at ease in Hyde Park in the wee hours of the morning or having a stroll on a Zimbabwean savanna?
“Oh come on, that’s so easy,” Rundell says, laughing. “Definitely on a savanna in Zimbabwe! Lovely though Hyde Park is, I wouldn’t go there at 2 a.m. Whereas on a savanna in Zimbabwe, you’re probably absolutely fine.” Rethinking that “probably,” she matter-of-factly adds, “apart from snakes.”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own teen novel and needing to book a trip to Zimbabwe.