Finisterre – New Novel Extract by Caroline Brothers

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Unpublished Books

1. Feather

She hesitated at the fork. One branch ran inland a little way, then hugged the perimeter of the wheat fields where the harvesters had been and gone, scraping the landscape raw. In a couple of weeks, the diggers and then the fertilising machines would be back in force, and after them the planters and the herbiciders, sullying the air with their chemical haze on their fourth big outing this year.

She hated the weeks that they came. From Norseman’s Dyke she’d watch them crawl up the coast towards them, tails aloft like scorpions, bringing closer the seven days when Nora would lock them indoors. 

The other path ran closer to the cliff edge with its lookout points and crevasses that plunged a hundred metres to the sea. The cliff-edge way was longer, but from the top she could spot things: planks washed up on the rocks below, or maybe, among the plastic bottles and packing crates and bits of polystyrene, objects that might be of use to them. A broken chair. A canvas shoe. A twist of orange rope.

Overnight it had been raining. The puddles with their sulphurous rims stared glassily, jaundiced as old men’s eyes.

She chose the path along the top of the cliffs and ran it lightly, clasping the small round leaves to her chest. She was proud of herself for finding them since they weren’t that abundant this year. Scurvy grass, Nora said it was called, named thus by sailors of old. She’d learnt enough to ration the amount that she’d harvested, leaving enough on the three low clumps in case of future need.

The path undulated with the rise and fall of the headland, then angled itself directly to the wind. Tears streamed into her ears, eyes stung by the whip of her hair. This morning the breeze was a northeasterly – she knew the cardinal points and had practised them with the compass that was the best thing she had rescued from the sea. It had leered at her from a crevice in a rock-pool, a wobbly sphere that ogled like an eyeball, with a marker like a broken capillary to indicate north. Seawater had somehow seeped inside it; she shivered when she stared at the slithery iris welling with upside-down tears.

‘North is something you can count on, like day and night,’ Nora had said when Lorca had brought it home on a morning just like this one, after she’d been running down on the beach.

‘And the tides,’ said Lorca.

‘Yes,’ said Nora. ‘Like night and north and the tides.’ 

Her mother was always saying things like that. Listing the things that were sure.

The warmtime wasn’t one of them, since everything was now so mixed up. You could no longer use words like spring and autumn, so Nora said, since nuance in the weather had disappeared. ‘Warmtime’ and ‘coldtime’ just about covered it, even if the warmtime heat could bring furious storms, while a lack of rain in the coldtime could turn the earth to pitiless stone. 

Between this path and the laser-beam fences, grasses grew with abandon, laced when the warmtime came with tiny pink flowers. Lorca knew every bend in the track, discernible though almost all grown over, since nobody much ever used it but themselves. From Norseman’s Dyke it wound gently down towards a depression that formed a shelter, and which for all of her living memory had been their home. 

There’d been a time before that that she couldn’t remember, when they had been a family and had lived together in an apartment in a distant city, where they’d had canaries that sometimes flew around the living room and Lorca had spent the first six years of her life. But she had no recollection of any of it; it was as if that chapter of her existence had never been.

From the access roads, where the people they had to steer clear of came and went, you’d never guess that a cottage was hidden here. Nor could you see it from the cliff side, huddled as it was behind the sycamore and its fortress of blackberry thorns.

She was almost at the turnoff on the final stretch when something pulled her up short. There between the thistle stalks, relics of last year’s warmtime, a ghostly form lay caught in the grass, trembling like something alive. 

She set down her bunch of spoon-shaped leaves and knelt on them to stop the wind dispersing them and peered through the forest of stems. Cautiously she leant towards it, and when nothing flinched or lunged at her, she drew it out of the grass. 

Weightless, it had a pointed end that she took it by and held it up to the light. While the base was soft and loosely fringed, its top was closely meshed yet stretchy when she tried to pull it apart. 

It didn’t flutter like the moths she’d seen that were the same albino colour; despite its shape, it wasn’t at all like a leaf. Puzzled, she ran a finger down one edge of it, fibres catching on the whorls of her skin. It didn’t fall apart like a dandelion, dispatching tiny parachutes onto the breeze. Instead, it sent a ripple down her spine that was halfway between a tickle and a caress. 

She’d ask when she got back to the cottage. She slipped it into the pocket that Nora had stitched to the outside leg of her trousers, checking on it from time to time to make sure it hadn’t escaped.


Nora turned to her in astonishment when she’d laid it on the outside table, barely glancing at the scurvy grass which normally she was delighted to see. One edge of the leaf-thing had been crushed by Lorca’s pocket, its delicate filaments folded against the inside seam.

‘Where did you say you found it?’ she said.

‘On the cliff path, near the thistles. Before the turn.’

Drying her hands on her haunches, Nora picked it up to examine it, twirling it back and forth in the morning light. 

‘Were there more blowing around like this?’

‘No, Ma, only this one. What is it?’

Nora looked at it with eyes like an archaeologist at the entrance to a pharaoh’s tomb.

‘Well,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘it must be very old. I never thought I’d see one of these again.’

‘What is it, Ma?’ said Lorca, tugging at her mother’s sleeve.

Her mother, Lorca knew, was good at this: she knew all the words for naming things, even things she hadn’t spoken of in years. She remembered things that had happened in the beforetime, and she knew about the times that had gone before that, for example when the pharaohs were in charge.

‘We talked about them once – do you remember?’ said Nora, handing the leaf-thing back. ‘It was when you asked what life was – and I teased you about how easy your questions were.’

Lorca tried to think. Nora was always teaching her things that she had to imagine – like cetacean and crustacean, chrysalis and metamorphosis – hard-to-spell names for things you could never see. Nora called them vanishing words, as if language itself were being impoverished, extinguished with the things it described. But Lorca found it hard to hold onto ideas that only existed inside her head. 

‘I’ll give you a hint. It was when we were talking about insects, and we got onto all the creatures that laid eggs.’

Nora was siphoning water into the saucepan from the drum where they collected rainwater, and Lorca was watching the level in the saucepan rise. There were holes for the screws where once there had been a handle, and Lorca was good at warning when the pumping should stop.

Lorca had never actually seen an egg but she was fascinated by the idea of them, how they were the start of everything and the point of everything, how everything fitted inside them that was needed for life. 

‘It’s not from a bird, is it?’ she asked, only half convinced of her own guess. 

‘Ay, it is indeed,’ said Nora. ‘It’s a wing-feather I’d say, from the length of it. I haven’t seen one in years.’

Lorca rubbed her palms together to make it whir between her fingers.

‘What bird is it from?’ she said.

‘You can’t really tell from a single feather. You’d need to see the whole bird.’ 

Lorca held it high above her, then brought it down, then up again in great swooping arcs through the air.

‘Careful, sweetheart!’ said Nora, eyeing the bottles lined up on the outside shelf.

Lorca brought the feather in to land.

‘Once upon a time this place was full of birds,’ said Nora. ‘You won’t believe it, but when I was your age they used to descend in their thousands to nest on these cliffs. If you went out in a boat at the height of the breeding season, it looked like it had been snowing all along the coast.’

‘Not on the cliffs themselves, Ma. There aren’t any nesting spots there.’

‘That’s exactly where they were, my love. Great colonies of them, gannets mostly. Each pair looked after a single egg that they’d incubate under their feet.’


‘Keep warm, you know, till they hatched.’

‘On the rock-face itself? In the wind?’

Nora laughed. ‘I knew you wouldn’t believe it. But that’s where they were safe from predators, except perhaps from other birds. And people, who in the olden times would climb down and filch the eggs.’

‘Down these cliffs?’ said Lorca, eyes wide with surprise.

‘Ay, on thick old nautical ropes.’

‘What for?’

‘For money, of course. They sold the eggs to collectors.’

Lorca hadn’t seen that coming; she’d been thinking about how they might taste. On the other hand, she knew about collecting – she had a row of limpet shells she’d found in different sizes over the years. Yet still it didn’t make sense. 

‘Why would anyone want to collect their eggs?’

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Nora. ‘There were guillemots here in those days and their eggs were really pretty – all speckled and in different colours. You’d never find any two the same.’

‘But wouldn’t they stink?’

‘Only if they didn’t empty them. In fact, they got them soon after they were laid, made a hole at each end, and blew all the contents out.’

Lorca looked at her in disgust. ‘So they killed the chicks inside?’

‘Well, there wouldn’t have been any chicks, as such. They’d have grabbed the eggs too early, before the young had started to grow.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘So then what did they do?’

‘With the eggs? They arranged them in boxes and showed them off to their friends.’

‘No, I mean the birds. How could you have more birds if they stole all the eggs?’

‘Well, I don’t think they got all of them.’

‘But there aren’t any birds here now.’  

Nora paused a moment, thinking how best to respond.

‘Well, the thefts didn’t help. But there were other reasons. There are lots of species missing, darling, you know that. Like many of them, they would have run out of food.’

‘But weren’t there all those little farms around here? Couldn’t they have just got some seeds?’

‘They were sea birds, Lorca. Fishing birds. They didn’t eat seeds. But there was nowt in the sea left to catch.’

Lorca knew that the seas that were now empty had once been full of creatures, some so small they were invisible, while others were extraordinary giants like the ones in the book by her bed. Some of them she’d seen fossilized in the limestone, weird symmetrical creatures with bodies like flattened armor, and others that were shaped like spirals that Nora said were called ammonites.

Sometimes, too, when they went fossicking on the beach for driftwood, they’d discover the bleached skulls of old whelks.

‘Well,’ said Lorca. ‘One of them must have found something to eat. One of them must have come back.’

‘I don’t think that’s possible, love.’

‘Then how do you explain the feather?’

Nora shrugged. ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’

‘So – what’s your guess?’

‘Sweetheart, that’s just a way of saying I don’t know.’

‘But it must have got here somehow!’ 

Nora sighed. ‘You know they’ve all gone, Lorca. We’ve talked before about extinction. I know –’

‘But Ma! I found it on top of the cliffs. It’s not just some rubbish washed up by the sea.’  

Nora hated dwelling on these matters with Lorca: the mass biological losses that had accelerated in her lifetime, that engulfed her in a wave of shame that she felt on her daughter’s behalf.

‘I don’t know, Lorca. If the chances weren’t so minuscule, if the idea weren’t so impossible… I would almost say some vagrant had been blown ashore.’

Lorca looked puzzled. ‘A vagrant?’

‘It’s a word they used to use for a bird that got blown off course and turned up in a habitat not its own.’

‘Oh,’ said Lorca. ‘Like us.’ 

Nora shot her a sideways glance, not for the first time startled by her daughter’s mind. 

‘You could say that,’ she said then with a smile, flicking water at her from the saucepan that was starting to leak through the holes.

‘So, what will happen to it?’

‘What do you mean, what will happen to it?’

‘What’ll it eat? Where will it sleep?’

‘Oh Lorca,’ she said, turning to her and putting her hands on her shoulders. ‘If there were a bird, and it doesn’t seem likely, but if there were, and if against all odds it made landfall, if – alone of all its species – it managed to find food and survive the wind and the sea and its own exhaustion, it’s probably miles away already. Look around you, my love. Do you see anything to keep a bird here?’ 

2. Peat

Nora was carrying the woodsaw down to the cornice. That was what they called the piece of the cliff that had subsided below the escarpment, creating a shelf like a tiny field that was hidden by the contours of the cliffs. Impregnable to all but those who had found the way down to it, Nora thought of it as sunken fortress that harboured the last of the trees. There were dwarf oaks and stunted sycamores, holly bushes and a hawthorn that had survived thanks only to the freakishness of the landscape, its foliage scooped into a curve that was the shape of the wind.

It was an aberration, this tiny pocket of nature that had no business existing in a land surrendered to farming on an industrial scale.

Weaving through the blackberries, Nora supposed that over the centuries, the difficulty of gaining access must have kept the woodcutters out. With the cliff’s sheer drop on one side and the parapet above it, it was hardly worth the effort of bringing an axe given how hard it would be to haul the timber out.

Unless, of course, as was the case for herself and Lorca, there was no other source.

For Nora, fuel was a constant worry, as much the background to their existence as the sea. They had to be careful to conserve it, and parsimoniously ration it for food, heat and washing, though sometimes in the coldtime they had to put the heating first.

Nora wondered whether people had lived like this in the Dark Ages, that long-ago time that might just as well describe the present day. Their world after all, as hers was now, was lit only by fire or the sun. Peat was what they’d burnt in their smoky hovels – there was a place where they used to cut it a few miles down the coast. Nora was thinking of going there, before the next coldtime descended, in case there was some to retrieve.

If there were, she thought, if she could extract a few blocks with the spade from the shed, she’d have to devise some method for getting them home.

Centuries ago, had those who lived here considered themselves custodians of the woodlands, clearing undergrowth from the forests as well as cultivating their fields? In time they must have felled the forests to expand their farms, beginning the work of exhausting the earth that industry had completed, that technology was now trying to thwart.

Nowadays, of course, the country stretched out flattened and deforested, from cliff-edge to horizon and beyond. Corporate farms enhanced the soil with fertilisers and poisoned it with herbicides and seeded it with laboratory-generated grain.

Freed from dependence on insects, which pesticides had eliminated in any case, fertilisation was done scientifically and cultivation robotically, yielding four full harvests a year.

Amid all this, the cornice had remained untouched. To Nora it was a kind of miracle, a paradox, a sanctuary bypassed by the machinery of growth. A fault that couldn’t be bulldozed out of the landscape. A waste of capital investment to reverse. And so, in this marginal space between sea and salt-sprayed cliff-top, this impossible fragment of nature had survived.

Nora emerged through the rocky part that Lorca had nicknamed the Scramble and, woodsaw at her hip, entered the low stand of trees. As it always did, whether immediately or after she had been there a few moments, its peacefulness spread through her veins. More than a haven, it soothed her because it connected her to something so much greater than herself. For all she knew it was the world’s last pocket of wilderness, the last that existed anywhere.

The trees formed clumps that in places had become impenetrable because of the boulders they’d grown over and around. She stood looking at the rocks that were dappled with lichen that brought colour to the coldtime world. In the warmtime there were cyclamen and violets, and some years even a type of orchid. And though this was neither the place nor climate nor even the right kind of soil for them, they had seen snowdrops when the coldtime came to an end.

Lorca had given her a hand with the blackberries that Nora was forever battling to keep at bay. She used the saw that she’d been carrying, that she’d found on a nail in the woodshed, to hack at the canes to keep them from strangling the trees. A native plant it might be, but blackberry thorn to Nora was an intolerable scourge. A devilish plant that wouldn’t rot even after she’d slashed it and yanked it out, she tossed the canes onto the tarpaulin and hauled them back to the cottage to burn.

At least during the weeks they could light the stove.

Even now – perhaps more than when they’d arrived here – they had to be careful. Normally the breeze would disperse the smoke but there were days when the wind fell silent, laying an eerie stillness over the coast. On those days they’d have to wait till nightfall before lighting a fire that would have to burn out by dawn.

If she did get hold of some peat, Nora thought, they’d have to experiment when no workers were about – between crop-spraying and harvest, for instance – to test how much smoke it would release.

At the beginning, she had been constantly on edge. But now that they had adapted to their circumstances, the danger lay rather in letting their vigilance drop. If ever Nora thought she had done so, if she thought some worker had glimpsed her along the fences or out on the headland, she would snatch up one of the blackberry canes and grip it till its thorns bore into her palm. The pain of it, and the deep black wounds scored into her hand that she had to bathe in saltwater to prevent infection, would remind her to be careful for weeks.

The machine drivers came only at intervals, a new team on rotation every time. That was because of the chemicals, so toxic that a week’s exposure was the most a worker could tolerate, even despite their layers of protective garb.

These days it was like a reflex, Nora’s strictness about lying low. They had arrived here clandestinely, at the height of the great exodus after the blackout, when everything was confusion and no-one had fully understood what was taking place. Once they’d started fumigating the cities, which Nora saw in a flash was a form of ridding, she’d known that they’d had no choice and a single chance. Gauging the risks and keeping close to the ground was everything; and now she had made a habit of it, invisibility draped about her like a cloak.

There were things she hated remembering from the escapetime. There were things she would never speak of, and would certainly never mention to her daughter; things she refused to let herself recall.

She had reached the wall of the cornice where they’d dragged the branches they’d hacked from the thicket the season before. For want of a woodshed, they had left them here to dry under the green tarpaulin. With a critical eye Nora flipped it back to size up what they had left.

At a glance she could see they would not have enough to last them into the coldtime. They would have to scour the beaches for driftwood. And she would have to see what she could do about a source of peat.

For now, though, they still had a few branches left. Frowning, Nora nicked the thickest with the saw to test for dryness. Satisfied, she placed her foot on the neck of it, teeth catching as she drew back the blade.

3. Chalk

Her Ma had been taking her to the cornice since the day they had moved to the chalk-stone cottage when the big blackout had struck.

Lorca had no memory of that moment, nor the time that preceded it, as if the blackout were something inside her that had affected her memory, too. She was barely six when it had happened, and though she tried to force herself – she’d had eyes so she must have seen things, ears so she must have heard – she couldn’t recall any detail, as if her whole life had begun with their refuge here. 

Lorca often asked Nora about the beforetime, which to her was as much a place as it was an era. She especially wanted to know about her father, and about their life before they came to the cliffs. Nora would start off patiently, but soon get tired of her questions, which branched into still more questions, till she was exhausted with having to explain.

There was school then, though, that much Lorca knew. You could go when you were old enough, if your family was able to pay for it; otherwise, you had to learn things at home. And because Nora believed in learning, she made a point of sitting with Lorca every day to teach her, though it was unclear to Lorca how vanishing words and abstract laws could ever be any use.

Nor could she see why she had to learn about things that didn’t physically exist. Like geometry, when there was nothing geometric in their universe. Like multiplication, when there was nothing they had to multiply, and only things to subtract. Like writing, when they had nobody to write to and no need to hold onto their words.

Nora was immoveable on that point. She explained how the first writing was done by animals, and the first readers were the first human beings. Like the double-digit scribblings left in the sand by weevils where the two of them looked for driftwood, animals would leave instructions – footprints, dung middens, broken foliage – that hunters could follow if they knew how to read.

They didn’t have paper to write on but the stone around the cliffs was chalky, and Nora had salvaged some of the slates that had come off the roof in the Great Storm. So they wrote with chalk on the broken slates and rubbed them clean when they filled them, which meant storing a lot of things in their heads.

Nora taught her things from out of her memory, because the cottage had only a handful of books, and the ones she recharged in the beforetime were no use when the shutdown came.

That meant that the few they had found in the cottage – except for the encyclopaedia, which was really only good for consulting – they had to keep re-reading. Nora said it was to make sure they hadn’t missed anything, and to find the things that were hidden between the lines. Lorca looked hard, but the lines all seemed too close to her for hiding anything in between. 

In any case, Lorca wasn’t sure she liked books much – in the damp sea air their pages turned all freckly, and the covers had historical pictures on them of people in uncomfortable clothes. For one book they’d brought with them from the beforetime, Lorca made an exception. The author was a Frenchman and the people in it had adventures at the bottom of the sea. The characters all travelled by submarine and fantastical creatures swam in front of the portholes, and it had handwriting on one of the pages: To Lorca, with love from your Dad.

Sometimes, when the farm was quiet, they did their lessons down at the cornice; they had a place there that was sheltered from the wind. That’s where Nora taught her about biology, which had been Nora’s favourite subject and the one Lorca also liked best. The information came from the long-ago time when there were wetlands and forests and grasslands, and creatures in them like giraffes and flamingos and lions. 

Nora explained how the trees kept alive thanks to the sun and minerals and water, how they purified the air and could determine the weather if they grew in big enough groups. She taught her how everything was connected, how ants and woodlice created mulch for the plants that bore the fruit that was eaten by creatures that spread the seeds they consumed.

Lorca loved the way that everything fitted together, and decided that when she was old enough she would go on a visit to Africa, where all the best animals came from, to see for herself if the fitting-together was true.


Lorca loved the cottage. She had explored every last inch of it, from the rafters to the hidden pockets of the furniture. She could tell which was the oldest part and where it had been added on to by examining the colour of the stone. Behind a wardrobe she found a side-door to the shed that was really a lean-to, and from the lean-to there was an exit to the outside world if you didn’t mind being snagged by the thorns.

The people who’d built the house must have been shorter than people these days, because Nora had to stoop when she came indoors. 

The cottage had two bedrooms. Each had a rusty-springed bed and a mattress that sagged under its own exhaustion; the hollows they didn’t fit into had been shaped by heavier haunches and weightier limbs. There were rugs made of squares of crochet and cushions that smelt of kapok, and an enamel bath with a stripe in the bottom that looked like a crocodile in a pool. 

The wardrobe was hung with coats of heavy material, all musty with long-ago rain. Pegged to wooden coat hangers were skirts that were thicker than blankets, and old-fashioned dresses that they’d once tried on to amuse themselves during one of their lockdown weeks. They also found some trousers that Lorca could wear once Nora took up the hems and hammered extra holes in a belt. 

In a drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe they’d found several hand-knitted sweaters. One, in strawberry wool, was immediately claimed by Lorca though its sleeves required multiple rollings; Nora found her another with blue and green stripes and a neck that would keep out the wind.

They’d found food, too, in the pantry, which was an alcove off the kitchen that was big enough to stand up in and walk around. It was dark in there, but once your eyes adjusted, you could find all manner of things. There were shelves from floor to ceiling that held baskets for potatoes and onions, and bottles of beans and carrots that leant like faded soldiers against the glass. More spooky were the yellowish plums suspended in pink liquid, that Nora said were like specimens in a museum. Lorca refused to try them until they’d run out of jam and honey; in her craving for sweetness, she discovered how appearances could deceive.

It was Nora’s idea that they keep their backpacks ready in case emergency struck. Inside, they kept a change of clothes, plus a knife, fork and spoon from the kitchen, and the compass Lorca found on the beach. They each had an empty bottle with a screw-top lid for water, and a jar of preserves that made their backpacks heavier, but Nora said that if anything happened, they’d be grateful for something to eat. 

Their arrival Nora called the Time of Plenty. Now, however, was the Time of Making-Do.

Nora was always reminding Lorca how lucky they were to have this haven, that it was a miracle it was standing empty and that no-one had ransacked it first. Stocked with blankets and food and clothing, it was what Nora called a godsend – though even Lorca knew that the gods didn’t actually send homes.

Nora remembered the cottage because she had been there before in her childhood, and had once even stayed in this exact same house when the owners had gone away. 

That was how she knew where to go when they’d needed a place to escape to, when the blackout came and the fumigators arrived in their street.

It was also how she knew about the birds that used to nest here but no longer came.

Caroline Brothers is the author of two novels and a work of nonfiction about modern war photography. Her fiction is often concerned with people caught up in the aftermath of violence. Her first novel, ‘Hinterland’ (Bloomsbury), builds on her ground-breaking work in journalism to chart the journey of two Afghan children on the backroads of Europe, and was awarded a McKitterick prize. Its stage adaptation, described by the New Yorker as ‘unforgettable in content and form’, has toured to four continents. The Memory Stones’ (Bloomsbury) tells of the search for a child stolen during Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ while her new novel, ‘Finisterre’, examines the interaction between nature and human nature in a world under ecological stress.

Australian-born, Caroline trained as an historian before qualifying as a correspondent with Reuters, reporting from Mexico and France before joining the International New York Times in Paris. She was recently a PEN-Catalonia literature fellow in Barcelona, and her fiction has been supported by the Maison Dora Maar in France, the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy, the British Council in Spain, Writers OMI in New York and Scotland’s Hawthornden Castle. She runs creative writing workshops in the UK and mentors new writers at Story Board.