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Lisa St Aubin de Terán’s life reads as fabulously as one of her award-winning books. She has lived all over the world in outlandish, often dangerous, circumstances. One of her novels has now been made into a film. 

We’re speaking via a highly-strung WiFi connection, I from a misty Irish farm, she from a dot on the thin line of sand that threads along the east coast of Africa. Love brought her here, just as it swept her away to so many places since she made off at 16 with a South American aristocrat.

The youngest of four girls - one from each of her mother’s husbands - she was born and grew up in London, vastly indulged as a child.

I was absolutely, openly and disgracefully my mother’s favourite. She’d been a battered child, and during her pregnancy with me her past had come back to haunt her. She had tried to commit suicide, then recovered. It meant that, in a curious way, she was always emotionally dependent on me. I was precocious, obnoxious and spoilt. I was also sickly because I had TB. That allowed me to miss a lot of school, which I hated. I didn’t like being told what to do.

She discovered the power of language early on, and knew she wanted to be a writer.

I can tell you exactly to the moment I realized the power of words. I was 12. My stepfather had been tasked by my mother to get me out of the house where I was being exasperating. He took me to a Benjamin Britten concert, probably because he knew the soprano. I hated it. To this day I can’t stand Benjamin Britten.

But trapped in her seat in an age-twelve concept of utter misery, she experienced an epiphany.

I’d been introduced to the poetry of Wilfred Owen. To block the dreadful music I began running lines through my head. I wrote from then on and knew I wanted to be a poet and a writer.

Her mother Joanna married four times, the fourth time to Lisa’s father Jan Rynveld Carew, the prominent Guyanese writer, academic and activist. He gifted his daughter with his wanderlust and perhaps also the mettle she was to rely on to get through her unorthodox life.

At 14 and 15 all my friends had boyfriends, but I didn’t. I think acne had something to do with it. I couldn’t face their pimply skins.

Instead, in 1969 aged 16 she fell for Don Jaime de Terán, a South American aristocrat she met on the street in Clapham.

He spoke barely any English, but for the next eight months, he stalked me, repeatedly proposing marriage at bus stops. I thought he was exotic and interesting, and when he finally said he would take me to Italy, I said yes, because that was my dream.

With the experience of multiple divorces behind her, her mother was pitted against the liaison. Her father wasn't around to step in. That the girl went through with the union is mindboggling until you reflect that, in addition to normal teenage audacity, she had a bohemian family background which was further magnified by the influence of the Sixties, and had also grown up accustomed to getting her own way.

The day of our wedding, he told me he was a bank robber and a political exile.

He also turned out to be a violent schizophrenic. Following a period of traipsing around Italy ducking arrest in the company of one of Don Jaime’s revolutionary sidekicks, the teen bride and the robber baron shipped out to Venezuela to live at the de Terán family’s immense, crumbling sugar estate.

The Hacienda

Within days of arriving in the remote Andes, Don Jaime disappeared on bank-robbing business and left his wife in a dilapidated shack. She was abandoned without food, money or much in the way of communication with the outside world. For company she had impoverished labourers who spoke no English, and Jaime’s sinister pet vulture named Napoleon.

The Hacienda is the riveting account of her life on the estate, which she wrote years after she escaped with her baby daughter. The memoir describes how she took up the reins of the failing farm during her husband’s extended absences. She doctored the workers and their families, ran the avocado and sugarcane farming on an estate the size of Scotland, and set about restoring the family’s grand old house that was uninhabitable through neglect.

To add to the excitement, she had to navigate the Machiavellian scheming of her hostile new South American relatives as well as tiptoe through Jaime’s chilling cruelty and lunatic rages. Her letters home to her mother left out these truths and that she slept with a pistol under her pillow.


Leaving wasn’t simple. There were formidable official obstacles to traveling with her child, who was a Venezuelan citizen and couldn't leave the country without Jaime’s permission. With her mother's help in the form of 'medical letters' from home, she duped Jaime into letting her leave with Iseult in 1979.

Finally Jaime decided that our destiny was that we and our daughter, Iseult, should die in a suicide pact. I persuaded him to wait until Iseult was five, because that was a special age. As her fifth birthday approached, I escaped by saying I needed to go back to the UK for medical treatment.

And all this by the age of 25.

Escape and Writing

Back in England, she was free of Don Jaime though not entirely safe from him. Her immediate challenge was to support herself and her baby. She had no income and no education apart from what she’d learned about tropical farming. She devoted herself to her writing.

Her first novel, Keepers of the House (1982), a fictionalized account of her life in Venezuela, won the Somerset Maugham Award and she received the Eric Gregory Award for Poetry in 1983. Her talent made her the darling of the British literary scene, if a faintly eccentric one who favoured a daytime wardrobe of antique silk coats, hats and trailing ball gowns. A year later she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her next book, The Slow Train to Milan (1983). While her career was in full sail, her second marriage to the poet George MacBeth, whom she’d married in the early Eighties, foundered.

It was another situation where circumstances swallowed me up. George, who had been generous and brilliant, proved also to be controlling, so I left.

She moved back to her beloved Italy, rebuilt a ruined house in Umbria, and of course wrote a book about the experience. Then as now, her writing had a biographical slant, yet there’s one title that seems out of place on the list of over 20 published volumes.

Bay of Silence

Bay of Silence, the 1986 psychological thriller, sticks out from her customary genre and has been her only venture into crime fiction.

At the time that I wrote Bay of Silence I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was falling apart and very worried something would happen to Iseult. I wrote the book as a kind of therapy to deal with things.

She was dogged by her former South American family’s continued pursuit of Iseult. She felt herself watched. Wherever she lived, whether in England, Wales or Italy, it seemed a shadow followed; moved when she moved. Despite all her prowess and pluck, layers of struggle and ongoing anxiety had built up over the years.

They felt Iseult belonged to them and wanted to take her to live with them in Venezuela. I’d almost gone into hiding. I’d moved to an extremely simple, isolated little village on the coast of Normandy. It was a peculiar place. There was a nuclear reactor on the outskirts. While we were there Iseult was abducted. She was a young child at the time. She wasn’t harmed and she was found quickly, but the episode and the period surrounding it was terrifying.

The Movie

Although the plot in Bay of Silence is not a literal retelling of that episode, the thriller bears similarities and writing it was her way of working through the trauma. The manuscript became a screenplay by Caroline Goodall. In August 2020 it was released as a movie of the same name. Actors Claes Bang, Olga Kurylenko, Alice Krige, Assaad Bouab and Brian Cox take the lead roles.

Back to England Again

Putting Normandy firmly behind her, she returned to England and kept writing. A growing literary following buoyed her spirits. Soon her personal life looked up. She married her good friend, Robbie Duff Scott, an artist she’d originally met when she commissioned him to paint her portrait.

We had such fun together but a relationship between two artists isn’t necessarily a good idea. It can get competitive. After 17 years I had to concede that we should never have married.

Amsterdam to Mossuril

Exhausted by another divorce and now heavily in debt, she did what she’d always done. She vowed never again, got up, brushed herself off and moved on. This time she decamped to Amsterdam to set up a film company. Within days of landing she met Dutch war correspondent Mees van Deth. Soon afterward they traveled to Mozambique’s Mossuril Peninsula to make a film. They fell in love with the place and with one another and have never left.

I’ve had a strange and interesting life, but nothing I’ve done approaches the exoticness of Mees’s adventures. Finally, when I stopped looking for the perfect partner, I realised I’d found him.

In Mozambique Mysteries, her book about life in Mossuril, she describes the mangrove forest’s champagne-bubbling pure oxygen. There's a decaying Portuguese naval academy with an echoing ballroom and untouched white beaches where she combs for willow pattern porcelain washed ashore from ancient shipwrecks.

Life Today

Speaking across the wobbly airwaves, she says she misses nothing about Europe apart from books and gardens.

I arrived here with crates and crates of books that had to be hauled in by dhow. Within a year termites had devoured my entire library. Now I read anything I can lay my hands on. I’ve read every word on brochures for diesel generators…

To lose the books collected over a lifetime must be torture. The dearth of bookshops or libraries rubs salt in the wound. Her other great love, gardening, is a challenge in the fierce heat. But there’s a glimmer of hope via her recent involvement in landscaping a new hotel golf course.

These are minor problems in the great scheme, and she’s otherwise happy. Her days are filled with her partner, her family and several community programs she started.

Until I came to Mossuril, I went through life in an almost constant daydream, haphazardly stumbling from one mistake to the next.

The difference between everywhere else and here is that since I first set foot here I've never wanted to leave. Not now, not ever.

Photo: Lisa St Aubin de Terán

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