The Olive Grove

Korčula, Croatia

An English woman searching for a different future

A man desperate to escape his war-ravaged past

Can these two find what they are looking for on the beautiful Croatian island of Korčula?

Antonia Butler is on the brink of a life-changing decision and a job advert looking for a multilingual housekeeper at a beautifully renovated Croatian farmhouse, Vila Maslina, is one she can’t ignore.

Arriving on the tiny picturesque island of Korčula, Antonia feels a spark of hope for the first time in a long time. This is a chance to leave the past behind.

But this island, and its inhabitants, have secrets of their own and a not-too-distant past steeped in tragedy and war. None more so than Vila Maslina’s enigmatic owner Damir Maric. A young man with nothing to lose but everything to gain…

The story behind the story

I know exactly the moment I decided to write this book. Inevitably, giving the setting, I was on holiday in Croatia, but I wasn’t swanning around Korčula thinking how wonderful it was, I was sitting in the small dining room of our cruise ship listening to our tour director, Darko Barisic, talk about the Balkan war.

It wasn’t the history lesson that moved me so much – it was his own story. At the time he was a child in Mostar, a brutal centre of conflict, and his tales of living in bomb shelters, food parcels dropping from UN planes, the lengths his family went to in order to spirit his older brother out of the country before he was conscripted, were chilling enough.  But when he told us his mother had disappeared for a while (although thankfully she was returned to her family) I knew there was a story to be told.

I knew, because the story was important, I needed a publisher who would believe in it too. I pitched it to Charlotte Ledger at One More Chapter as one of a number of ideas for a book to follow The Missing Pieces of Us, and luckily it was the one she chose.

So in late summer last year I got back in touch with Darko, who agreed to help me. He was going through another torrid time, with covid having ripped away his livelihood, and he had had to join his brother in Norway to find work. We used his quarantine period wisely, chatting on Zoom about not only his wartime experiences, but also life in Croatia today as I wanted every aspect of the book to be authentic. I could not have written it without him.

I would stress that my character Damir Maric’s story is not Darko’s, and they have very different personalities. Research has shown that remarkably, most children who grow up in war zones are not damaged by the experience, particularly if they have strong family bonds and parents who are able to cope with the situation. For a novel, Damir needed a very different emotional journey.

I could have set The Olive Grove anywhere we visited on that holiday, but I was drawn to Korčula because of its sheer beauty, and also because we had made two stops on the island, one in a small resort called Lumbarda to swim. If only I had known at the time how often I would be going back there in my head I would have paid more attention, taken more photographs. And of course due to covid I could not return to research. All I can say is, when needs must the internet is a wonderful resource.