My Third Novel and an Extraordinary Coincidence

Inner peace

As I prepare to release my third novel, it feels like the world is a strange and dark place. After two years of the Covid pandemic that transformed lives and spread fear throughout the world, there is now a brutal war taking place in Ukraine – the country where I lived for many years, and whose culture I chose to write about for my first novel, The Woman Behind the Waterfall.



Why is nothing changing?

The horror of the war in Ukraine is showing off the darkest side of humanity for all the world to see, in real time. It’s a traumatic experience for everyone, let alone those with family or connections to the region. Humans have been working to become more peaceful and constructive for decades… and yet it feels as if we are back to square one. Humans destroying humans for money, for power, for land – out of fear, the desire to control, the desire to take. It’s terrifying to think that we have not moved on.



The Millennium Assembly

In the year 2000, the United Nations held the Millennium Assembly, where almost all the leaders of the world gathered to discuss what kind of world they wanted to rule over. I was lucky enough to be present at that meeting, as I was working at my first job in New York at UNESCO, and I’d impressed my boss enough for her to give me a free pass to attend the Assembly in between my projects. So there I was… with every leader of the world… wondering around the giant cereal box of the UN Headquarters. I found myself standing behind kings and queens (or that’s what they looked like!) in the cafeteria lunch queue. I sat in presentations and meetings. I elbowed my way through delegations. I listened to speeches by President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary and Kofi Anan, the much loved Secretary General.

Of all the speeches I heard, however, there was one that passed me by. Twenty years later, when I was writing my third novel, I came upon a speech made at the Millennium Assembly by S. N. Goenka, the man who brought the ancient tradition of Vipassana meditation to the wider world. (He also, by the way, fulfilled a prophesy by bringing it back to the land of India from Burma, where it had been kept safe and secret since the days of the Buddha… but that’s not central to the story).



There is a change

S. N. Goenka was all about peace. His mission was to alleviate human suffering by getting us all to mediate. And the speech he made at the Millenium Assembly is one of my favourite speeches of all time.

There will never be peace, he says, until there is peace in the hearts of the people of the Earth. Until we become responsible for our own inner peace, and carry that within us, then we will continue with the cycles of suffering, misunderstanding and conflict that we have been repeating for centuries.

It’s impossible to deny.

Until the people of Earth have peace in their hearts and approach each other with peace, then we will not escape these cycles of violence, fear and hatred.



Join the change

That was 20 years ago, and since then, in the face of climate catastrophe and planetary connection, there are many organisations and individuals who are establishing paths for better solutions and initiatives that focus on personal change. The Alef Trust, for example, trains people in consciousness and spiritual psychology. Their report Nurturing the Fields of Change explored how facilitators worldwide are helping groups of people to become more conscious, more peaceful, more aware.



And Breathe

My third novel, And Breathe, is set on a Vipassana course, and features S. N. Goenka, whose videos form part of the instruction. In fact, he is a character in the book, as an imagined teacher of one of the protagonists, who looks to him for guidance. It was only in a late draft of the novel that I realised that his speech that I had researched, was made in a time and a place that I was present at. I could have passed him in a corridor. I could have stood behind him in the UN cafeteria. Maybe I overheard him saying something and it went into my subconsious, to be dug out twenty years later. It’s a little indulgent to imagine, but I’m a writer, so I’m allowed.


The Covid pandemic and the war can leave us feeling bleak. But there are such upsides, much discussed among friends. The community and care that Covid inspired. The courage and unity and resilience of the Ukrainian people which stands out as the best of humanity. And the understanding that something has to change.

Things are already changing, and, I believe, for the better.

But the future, as S. N. Goenka has told us, is in carrying that peace in our own hearts.

Let’s meditate.

The Beauty of Western Ukraine

My favourite parts of Ukraine are the western and south western areas. The countryside is viscerally beautiful and stunningly lush and verdant. When I began writing my first novel, this was the natural place for me to set it – somewhere so little known and yet so rich in culture and beauty.

I tried in my novel to give a sense of the landscapes, but here are some photographs I took while travelling, which shows some of the reason I was so inspired. I hope you enjoy them.



This is a particularly lovely house in a village near Lviv – the largest city in the west of Ukraine.


The householders covered this house with straw for extra heat in the winter.


Here we are looking out of the straw-covered house to the garden and fields below.


This is a typical living room in a house. The walls are covered with carpets and there are sofa beds all around the edges. Several people might sleep in the room permanently, or the beds might be kept for guests.


This is a kitchen with an old fashioned tiled stove. They are incredibly warm and in the winter, the houses can be roasting hot.


This is a typical village lane. The photograph was taken in spring, which is when everything feels like it is growing before your eyes.


Many houses still rely on wells for water, and don’t have regular running water in the houses. This one was both functional and picturesque. The lid on it ensures the water stays clean for all the villagers.


This is a larger well, deeper in the countryside.


And here is the famous black soil, and the pre-Carpathians leading to the Carpathian Mountains beyond them.

I hope you agree it is a beautiful country. It is full of tales and unusual traditions and people who have extraordinary life stories to tell. I found it an inspiring place, and I plan to write more about it.

I’d love to hear from people reading this post. Can you think of any great things you know about Ukraine? Landscapes? Traditions? Literature? Do the photos of Ukraine remind you of other countries?

Thank you for reading!

Introduction to Ukraine

I lived for several years in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and one of the goals of my writing is to showcase some of the loveliest aspects of the country. There are so many great things about it, from the incredible, lush countryside, to the warm, entrepreneurial people, to the cultural traditions.

So here are a few facts about Ukraine to start off with, which people might not know.

I hope you enjoy them!


1. It’s huge! It has a landmass of 603,550 km2, and is the largest country with all its territory in Europe, closely followed by France with 551,500 km2.



2.  It has incredible, fertile agricultural lands. In the eighteenth century it was widely referred to as the breadbasket of Europe.



3.  It is famous for its wonderful, rich, fertile, black soil.



4.  The flag is half blue and half yellow, which represents the blue sky over fields of ripe wheat.



5.  The traditional Ukrainian welcome is to present guests with a loaf of black bread and salt. This symbolizes the hospitality of the Ukrainian people. It’s a tradition that you find in many of the surrounding countries and is used for important guests, for new visitors and for brides and grooms at weddings.

Bread and Salt


6.  The word kraina means border and Ukraine borders seven countries: Poland, Moldova, Romania, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary and Russia.

7.  Ukrainian language is close to Polish. It is a lyrical, musical language with soft vowels. There is no “g” in the pronunciation, so words with “g” are pronounced with an “h”.