Book extract: New blockbuster a story of love, loss and hope

Day 27: Historical romance is a popular genre and authors like Fiona McIntosh know exactly what readers want - The Champagne War is her 17th novel. McIntosh lives in South Australia but roams the world researching and drawing inspiration for her novels. The extract published below is part of our month of extracts from Australian authors, designed to inspire you to add a few new writers to your 2021 reading list.

The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh.
The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh.

Prologue

As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city. The water didn’t burst the banks as many presumed; instead it took a more sinister path, rising up through the subway system and over-flowing through sewers and any tunnel that its liquid tendrils could discover. Mother Nature, in her stealth, brought the city to its knees and covered its homes with her waters. And yet she had warned them – winter rainfall had been much higher than usual, and other rivers were showing signs of breach. Makeshift bridges had to be built to allow people to move around Paris, and some chose to row up and down its great avenues, even the Champs Élysées. The atmosphere in the city felt almost carnivalesque. The scenes described and photographed for the rest of the world were surreal.

In its gleeful rush to the sea, the River Seine took with it a restless highway of trees, furniture and shopfronts, amid a parade of possessions and the carcasses of animals caught unawares.

It also took three people from the same family with the surname Delancré.

Sophie, its one member left behind, busy in Épernay while her family was in Paris, and furiously regretting a chance to visit her favourite place on earth – the Opéra Garnier – these days never chose to recall the winter of 1910. Her mind, however, sometimes walked where her thoughts didn’t want to travel. It was impossible to clean away her sorrow in the same way Paris had cleansed itself of the flood’s repercussions.

It had been four years of sadness since learning that her parents had been hauled dead from the muddy waters but her brother – a gift from heaven, as her mother had called him, because she’d delivered him in her early forties – had vanished into the swirling depths, never to be recovered. The passing of his life was a tiny event among the broadening drama as more than two hundred thousand Parisians were made homeless over the day of the deluge.

She’d never discovered what had actually happened to put her three beloveds in that muddy water, but she had to presume ten-year-old Olivier had perhaps fallen into the water and her father had leapt in to rescue him; presumably her mother had tried to help and they’d all perished with the ferocity of that water. None could swim so their deaths, she knew, would have been panicked but she hoped swift. The horror taunted her for long winters of loneliness until the bright-natured vigneron Jerome Méa caught her elbow as she stumbled and changed her life as swiftly as the flood had changed her family’s.

They’d only met by chance, for although their fathers knew each other, the children’s lives had never intersected. He’d been born in Avize, about seven and a half miles from where she had been born and raised in Épernay. Four years after her father’s death, she received a message from the elder brother, Louis Méa, who wanted to discuss with the champagne house a new technique the family was trialling for winter pruning.

She noted Méa’s surprised expression, soon dissolving into a sardonic smile that the daughter had kept the appointment booked with senior winemaker Étienne Doremus. Méa proceeded to give her a tour of their chateau . . . not that she had come for that reason. As he did his best to impress upon her through his boastful facts about which king had slept in which wing down the centuries, and in which room Napoleon had presented Josephine with the rose-and violet-scented gloves he’d had crafted for her by House Galimard in Grasse, she realised how thoroughly bored she was by the somewhat paunchy and flamboyant Méa. He had ten years on her at least, and she noted, as he took the liberty of pressing gently on her back to guide her through a doorway, that his hands were small and well-manicured. Would he even know what a vineyard looked like?

‘Ah, now, my dear, do you know what this is?’

Sophie wanted to cut him a withering look and explain that not only could she not know, she certainly couldn’t guess, and most of all that she was entirely uninterested to know, but that would be impolite . . . and this was business. Instead she smiled her query, forbidding herself to speak.

This extract is from The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh, published by Penguin Random House (RRP $32.99) on November 3, 2020.