Hazel McHaffie

domestic violence

Psychological control

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on train stations of late, and browsing in the book sections on platforms while I wait … and wait … and wait. This week I was struck by the proportion of books in the top 60 which deal with psychology and crime – not just through fiction (there were several of those), but factual books.
Confessions of a Psychopath by ME Thomas
Stalkers by Rachel Cassidy
Talking with Psychopaths and Savages by Christopher Berry-Dee
Talking with Serial Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee
Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd

Hmmm. Is this the current trend, d’you suppose/know?

Weirdly enough, I had a book for the journey on Thursday that takes psychological thriller writing to a whole new level. “A wonderful portrayal of psychological obsession at its creepy best’ as one reviewer puts it. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Creepy serendipity? or just my mind atuned to the subject?

The setting for The Girl Before is an ultra-minimalist house in South Hendon in London: One Folgate Street. Austere, sterile, disciplined. Serene, calm, beautiful emptiness. A mausoleum of a place. Its award-winning architect and owner, Edward Monkford, insists on a huge number of rules – over 200! – for anyone leasing the property: no flatpack furniture, no cushions or rugs, nothing to be left on the floor at any time, no animals, no handrails, no books! …These rules constitute a restrictive covenant, a legal condition imposed on the property in perpetuity. Potential inhabitants must sign documents, fill in questionnaires, submit to being interviewed, before being selected to move in, and undergo repeated ongoing psychometric measurements grappling with intense ethical dilemmas – we get glimpses of the penetrating questions they’re asked throughout the book. Once in, they must undertake to keep the property completely uncluttered and regimented in line with Edward’s exacting standards. And every tenant so far has been a beautiful red-headed girl with determination and intelligence – facsimiles of Edward’s dead wife. Every one a vulnerable woman who has know grief and loss.

I’m always somewhat fascinated by the concept of the unreliable narrator, but it’s a tricky tactic to adopt in reality. This story follows two of the tenants – Emma and Jane – as they attempt to live up to the expectations of One Folgate Street, as they unravel the tragedies and stories relating to their predecessors. Because, for all its outward perfection, the house’s history is dark and sinister. Three people have died tragically – Edward’s wife and son amongst them. And Edward’s obsessive tendencies spill over into his control of the women sexually as well as mentally. He is looking for a pure relationship, unencumbered by convention, with a sense of simplicity and freedom on both sides. When it’s no longer perfect, each must be ready to move on, without regret.

Well written, cleverly plotted, interesting structure, well researched – and a runaway success. It took the author a decade or so to work out how to write the book, but she has captured something very special. It was well worth the wait.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in obsessive perfectionism, but it rings true. As does Delaney’s description of grief and loss, and the emotions around having a disabled child. Not surprising maybe as the author has herself lost a son, and has another one with a rare medical syndrome.

And the poignancy of this book is enhanced further for me by a report out the very day I finished it, about a five year high in the statistics for deaths relating to domestic violence in the UK. There is something particularly sinister about pathological behaviour behind closed doors. And Delaney has captured the essence of it in The Girl Before.

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Reflections on a golden summer

It certainly was quite a summer, wasn’t it? Wall to wall sunshine for weeks on end – no craving a Mediterranean break this year! And it seemed to fly by, often leaving little time for reflection. But September has brought a brief lull in my diary and inevitably I’m looking back and wondering what I’ve learned from the experiences; after all it’s the job of a writer ‘to see what everyone else sees and think what no one else thinks’ – or so they tell me!

Our beautiful city is currently in the process of dismantling the trappings of the biggest arts festival in the world; it looks rather forlorn, much as packing away Christmas feels. But the memories of a feast for the senses are bright and lasting. I’d like to share two reflections which are relevant to the blog and impinge on my decisions as a novelist.

When I first decided to fictionalise medical ethical dilemmas it was because I was increasingly aware of how story-telling can bring an issue to life and touch us more deeply than any textbook or lecture or internet search. This reality was reinforced during the Festival. I understand the life and times and motivation of Martin Luther the Protestant reformer,

and of Dr Josef Mengele the German SS officer and medical experimenter,

far better than I knew before, having watched superb dramatisations from their perspective.

I have greater empathy with the children of Dresden (another beautiful city) since seeing it through the eyes of a young Eleanor (performed by her real-life granddaughter) hiding from the bombs unleashed by ‘our’ side, picking her way through the rubble of flattened streets, cobbling together a life from the ruins of war.

And the second reflection? There’s a huge wealth of talent out there! I witnessed only a miniscule fraction of it. In total there were some 317 venues across the city; 3,548 different shows were staged; 2,838,839 tickets were issued. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And the standard was high. Only two of the many shows I saw disappointed in any way, and even they were professionally executed (the content was simply not to my taste). And most had a serious message behind them.

So I’ve returned to my own novel with renewed energy. I too can contribute, albeit in a small way, to this wonderful resource. And autumn seems like the perfect time to knuckle down to it. The crops are almost ready for harvesting. The nights are lengthening. The weeds are slowing their pace. Visitors have returned home. I have space to prioritise work; poring over every word, every comma; ruthless in my editing. I already have two pages of questions to take to the experts to ensure every aspect is authenticated. Ahhhh, yes, authentication. I’m struck by how often truth is stranger than fiction; if I’d written such-and-such real-life story reviewers would have condemned it as ‘far-fetched’, ‘not credible’, ‘hyperbolic’.

A case in point: this weekend I read a summary of a serious case review published by Wigan Safeguarding Children Board, which featured a 10-week old baby who died after being strapped in a car seat in a hotel room for 15 hours. Tragic in itself. But, more alarming still, 3 of the parents’ children have died in the space of two years. Indeed, of the 7 children the mother has given birth to since June 2015, only 4 have survived longer than 16 months.The authorities were aware of the history: alcohol abuse, neglect, domestic violence, frequent referrals to child social care, mental health challenges. The review reported ‘The commitment of the services that supported the child and family in the years preceding the child’s death was unquestionable, and the reviewers have identified many examples of good practice by professionals in providing information and support.
What’s more, all 4 surviving children remain with their parents. Would you have believed this in a work of fiction? ‘Far-fetched’, ‘not credible’, ‘hyperbolic’, come to mind!

Notwithstanding, I’m making every effort to make my own tale, Killing me Gently, ring true. And much as I love the buzz of summer, it feels like coming home myself to be back in the study, lost in my writing. And who knows, maybe one day this story will be dramatised! Screenwriters, film directors, out there, if you’re listening ….

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