It’s a broccoli book – and I hate broccoli
If, like me, you were raised in a book loving family, one of the things you were taught at an early age was that books, once started, should be finished. You should read to the end, even if you don’t want to. I’ve no idea why we were taught that as children – I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I was taught all sorts of stuff that I had to disabuse myself of before I could even dream about a happy life. One of those things was eating broccoli. I did it for years. Why? Because people told me I should. It was good for me. And I hated it. And then, one day, maybe ten years ago, maybe a little less, I was in mid chew and I thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t care how good it is for me – I hate the stuff.” I haven’t eaten it since. I’ll never eat it again.
The Darkness is like that. It’s very well written and, although I don’t speak a word of Icelandic, I can tell that Victoria Cribb’s translation is first class. And I read 80% of the book before I thought, “Why am I struggling on like this? I’m bored to tears. I couldn’t care less about the characters or what happens to them. My time has been woefully imposed on.” And I stopped. I didn’t finish it. I never will.
I know from looking at the reviews that there are people who think The Darkness is a wonderful book. I’m very pleased for them. I’m also very pleased for people who like eating broccoli. But both sets of people are deluded.
I’m a long-time admirer of William Trevor. I like the way, as an outsider (a Protestant in Catholic Ireland, and someone who had moved often in his childhood), he observed the people around him and presented them accurately in his fiction. I like even more his ability to indicate that what we are seeing when we read his books is not all that’s there. Sometimes, there’s a curtain between what we see and what is just out of sight but every bit as real. Sometimes, instead of a curtain it’s the ground beneath us and we know that it could suddenly move and we’ll be staring into the abyss. Those are great gifts in a writer and you don’t come across them very often. They are present in Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill. Hill lets us know that there’s more to the story than she has shown us – and, just occasionally and just for a moment, she lets it emerge from the darkness and stand before us.
As a man, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the way men are dealt with in this book, and I don’t just mean that there are three deaths and all of them are male. What made me uncomfortable was the qualities the men shared: all three of them took so naturally to controlling the protagonist (Carol Cage, who tells her story in the first person) that it was clearly second nature, and one of them also beat her. I know it happens. I don’t like knowing it happens. I don’t like watching it. But it is very well done here.
Carol spends most of her life in the shade of others. She knows it’s possible to be happy, but it seems to be beyond her reach. She reaches a kind of settlement at the end, and she does it as the reader reaches a different kind of ending. I said that all of the deaths are male; the title of the book is Killing the Girl, but the girl who dies is the naïve twelve-year-old who lives inside Carol Cage’s head and it’s long past her time to leave us.
It’s a challenging read, but worth it, and easy enough because, about a quarter of the way in, I found it had become one of those fairly rare books that grab you and pull you inside to the point where you’re living inside them and you can’t stop reading even if you want to (which I did, at one point, because of the kind of men I was having to look at. And I didn’t like the picture on the cover one little bit). It’s a first novel and it isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I look forward to the next by this author.
This is a very clever book on a number of levels. Peter Swanson has pulled off two very difficult tricks in one book:
- He has made us care about a character who, if not actively dislikeable, has nothing to commend him. The protagonist makes a point of telling us that he finds it easy enough to make someone’s surface acquaintance but almost impossible to move beyond that to real friendship, and that is exactly the way the reader feels about him
- He has written a new version of a very well-known book – probably one of Agatha Christie’s best-known and most written about – without our realising that that is what we are reading until quite late in the book. We know something is going on and Swanson nudges us in that direction with a cleverly inserted musing on the history and current popularity of the unreliable narrator – but it isn’t until the final two chapters (which closely parallel the final two chapters of the Christie book) that we completely understand what the author is up to.
This is not really a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, because the unravelling does not come from a series of clues – instead, as is normal in mystery fiction today, the killer is simply introduced to us at the appropriate point. The reason I’ve taken half a star if you’re reading this on my blog and a full star if you’re reading it on Amazon from something that is otherwise five-star perfect is that there is no “Of course!” moment – you don’t think, as you do with the very best mysteries, “How did I miss that? It’s been staring at me almost from Page 1.”
Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book and I recommend it.
Before reading this I read all three of the author’s Eldísvík novels and before that I read Too Many Heroes, so I guess you could call me a Jan Turk Petrie fan. What I like most is the way she creates real, believable characters and then carries them forward in a plot that makes sense and doesn’t get lost on the way. In Towards the Vanishing Point, she’s done it again. The author’s photograph suggests she isn’t old enough to remember the 1950s in England, but I do. It was a dishonest decade, ten years that we’re lucky to be rid of, and Petrie captures it as though she lived through the whole thing. I look forward to her sixth book.
This is not “Where do you get your ideas?”
It can take a long time to write a book, but they all start somewhere – with an idea, an observation, something the writer wants to say. I’m not talking about the question every writer gets – Where do you get your ideas? I always answer that question by saying, ‘Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea,’ and “honestly” doesn’t really belong in that sentence because I do know where I get them, but it’s just too complicated to go into. No, what I’m talking about is the moment we, the writers, start to move the idea out of our minds and onto the page.
The Making of Billy McErlane was unusual for me, because my first draft of the first sentence and, in fact, the first chapter was still there the day the book was published. Usually, those first few pages are the scaffolding that supports the book as it unfolds and they have disappeared by the time the file is laid out for the printer. In the case of Billy Mac, the first sentence I wrote was:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers
and that sentence, along with the sentences that made up the rest of the first chapter, made it into the finished book. But, as I say, that’s unusual.
What made me think about this was a conversation I had today with one of my favourite writers, Ali Bacon, about places to stay in Gran Canaria. The reason that’s relevant is that I wrote the original first chapter of my latest book, Darkness Comes, on holiday in Gran Canaria. I’d gone out for a walk immediately after breakfast and I didn’t get back until lunchtime (although I did stop for coffee twice, and on one of those stops I also had apple pie and ice cream). As I walked, I started to have an idea for a book about a theme that has been in my mind for as long as I can remember. And when I got back, lunch had to wait because I had constructed the whole of the first two chapters in my head and I needed to get them on paper before I did anything else. Just in case I forgot them.
I compose my best stuff while I’m walking
The book originally had a different working title. It took a long time to finish, and when it did come out (as Darkness Comes), those first two chapters were gone. I didn’t need them any more. They were on the writer’s equivalent of the cutting room floor. But they still – I believe – have something to say, and so I’m appending them here. Anyone who has read Darkness Comes will recognise what’s going on here. And that theme I mentioned is set out quite clearly.
Read it. I hope you enjoy it. If it makes you want to read the book, you’ll find it here.
The Original Opening of Darkness Comes
You have to have a genre
There’s a question that every writer has to answer about every book. The question is: What genre is it? Readers want to know, because readers have firm opinions about the genres they like and those they don’t. If you ask me, for example, I’ll tell you I don’t like dystopian fiction although it isn’t really true because Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. But it isn’t just readers – whoever is responsible for marketing your book also wants to know what genre it is because that’s the central plank in the marketing platform they build.
So I have been asked the question: What genre is my new book, Darkness Comes? In fact, I’ve been asked that question rather a lot. And I always try to give some sort of answer because that’s what you do. But the fact is: I haven’t a clue. I don’t know what genre you’d call it.
Usually, I do know
When I wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I was pretty clear that I was writing a coming of age novel. And when I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly, I knew it was essentially a book about the criminal classes and two contract killers, so if anyone asked I’d say it was a crime novel. But this one? Darkness Comes? I can’t place it in a genre. Which wouldn’t bother me, except that it makes selling the book to readers difficult. Before they buy a book, readers want to know what kind of book it is. And I suppose that’s a reasonable wish. So let me try.
Horror it is not
When I first uploaded Darkness Comes to Amazon, I was shocked to see that they put it in the Horror genre. Shocked because, however much trouble I have saying what genre it IS in, I find it easy to list a whole bunch that it isn’t in. And it isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance, either, or mystery, or crime (although there is a lot of crime in it).
So let’s take a look. The hero is Ted Bailey. Something bad happens to Ted Bailey when he’s still in his teens. Then something else bad happens to him when he’s just out of them. There’s no question that those bad things affect him in his later life, but really Ted’s problem is that he goes with the flow. He lets things happen. And the things that happen include fraud, and selling drugs, and living in Marseille with a woman who has sex with other men for money, and working for the French security services, and setting up a company to sell goods at an immoral profit margin to people who should not be allowed to buy them. Not infrequently, those goods are arms and, when he sells them, he’s breaking an embargo. Oh yes – and he kills one or two people. Well, more than one or two when you come down to it.
But while he’s doing those things, he also does other, more normal things. The sort of things that I do and you do. He falls in love – sometimes he doesn’t choose the woman he falls in love with very well, but there’s nothing unique in that. He helps people facing bad times and he tries not to let them know who it is that helps them. And when he has someone he thinks of as his daughter, he gives her all the love and all the care that the best human beings among us could come up with.
But that stuff – all of that stuff – is, in a way, beside the point. Because the story opens when Ted has an out of body experience after a heart attack. And what follows is a trial for his immortal soul. You might think, after what I’ve told you about his life, that he has no chance – but Saint Peter has enough doubt about that to send Alex, who was Ted’s fiancée and was murdered for it, back from heaven to conduct his defence. And we learn some things about heaven, and about God, that are nothing like the things humans have been taught for the last 2000 years.
There’s More! The Chat Show
Is that it? Not quite. For reasons best known to my imagination (an imagination that has landed me in trouble many times in the past), the trial takes the form of a chat show. And chat shows have guests. In this case, the guests include Peter Sellers, Barabbas, Henry Blofeld, John Betjeman, Ras Tafar, the one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, and a few other people. Some of the guests are still alive; most of them are dead. When you put all that together, and you say we HAVE to have a genre, you end up (and I did end up) saying that the book is about the supernatural.
So there you are: Darkness Comes is a novel about the supernatural. But this, for me, is the difficult bit. Because what seems supernatural to you is probably what seems quite normal to me. I’ve always been aware of another world on the edge of this one, shading into it and sometimes letting itself be seen. When Ted is in his suspended state on the edge of death, he sees things he’s never seen before – but they’ve always been there. They simply aren’t visible to most of the living most of the time.
The book is available in paperback and for Kindle. If you read it, and if then you know what genre it is, tell me. I really would like to know.
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth. I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses (and in fact a senior practice nurse is what my daughter became, and I’m proud of her); my problem was with people who limit a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I wrote The Making of Billy McErlane before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Shazza was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Billy Mac is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
Like so much else, it’s learned behaviour
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of having him for lunch when he’s served his purpose.
Sharon: I’m a woman, and I’m blonde. Well, men think I’m blonde
She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says, ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says, ‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?
Find Sharon Wright: Butterfly here.
How do you choose the next book to read?
If you’re anything like me, it’s a fairly random process – but you do have a small number of authors whose books you know you’re going to want to read as soon they come out. For example, I’ve just finished The Dark Angel, the latest in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. I pre-ordered it the day it was announced, because I’ve read all the earlier Ruth Galloway books and I knew I’d want to read this one. (I’ve finished it now, and it did not disappoint).
There aren’t many authors like that – names that are so reliable that you know the book is going to be a great read. Elly Griffiths is one. Jane Davis is another. I first came to her books when I read, I Stopped Time. On 12 April 2018, she’s releasing her new book, Smash all the Windows and you can pre-order it here at a special price. I’ve never met Jane (I’ve never met Elly Griffiths, either), but we have corresponded a couple of times (she put me onto the designer of the cover for The Making of Billy McErlane) and that gave me the courage to ask about the new book – where it came from, and how she went about writing it. Those are interesting questions in Jane’s case, because – unlike most authors – she doesn’t write the same book again and again. Since winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008 with her first book, Half-truths & White Lies, everything she has written has been a new attempt to tell her own truth in her own way. This is what she had to say.
Jane Davis talking about Smash all the Windows
My advice if you’re embarking on a novel? Stick to fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian fiction, anything. Just don’t meddle in current affairs.
My novel began with outrage. I remember that so vividly. I was appalled by the reaction of the press to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at the families of the victims as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now it was ‘all over’, they could finally get on with their lives. ‘What lives?’ I yelled at the television. Were they talking about the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Because they clearly no longer existed. And neither did the lives that they might have expected.
For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred at Hillsborough football stadium during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Particularly shocking at a time that pre-dated the internet was how the disaster played out in real-time in living rooms the length and breadth of the country. The moment the severity of the incident became apparent to senior police officers, there was a cover-up. With no reason to doubt incoming information, sports commentators simply repeated the lies they were fed. Liverpool fans were to blame. From that time onwards, everything done perpetuated a myth, making scapegoats out of victims and survivors alike. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set record straight.
Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, warns her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t. I think actually the biggest challenge a writer has is to not be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Making things up is what I do. And so I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – and created a fictional disaster from which to tell my story.
The previous year, I had suffered a fall on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden. I was overloaded, having just finished a day’s work in the city. I was carrying my laptop bag, my briefcase, plus a suitcase full of books. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper but I wasn’t prepared for how much faster it would go. I pushed my suitcase in front of me and, holding onto the handle, was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front of me. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But I can still recall the moment I knew I was about to fall and the recognition that there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
Even while avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I intended that my fictional disaster would share many common elements. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, people’s voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Photographs weren’t taken on mobile phones and posted online. In both instances there was someone in a position of seniority who was new to the job. There were elements of institutionalised complacency. (It’s said that the most dangerous sentence in the English language is ‘But we’ve always done things that way.’) Facilities dated from decades when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t as well understood as it is today. Risk assessments had failed to consider the possibility that more than thing might go wrong at any given time and how multiple-casualty emergencies would be dealt with. Both disasters blighted the lives of many hundreds – survivors, witnesses, families, friends and the police, doctors and nurses who had to deal with the aftermath. I wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their treatment when searching for loved ones. Similar insensitive treatment was seen in the aftermath of tragedies such as Lockerbie/PanAm and The Marchioness). This has led to a report calling for three crucial cultural changes: a charter for families bereaved by public tragedy; provision for proper participation of bereaved families at inquests and the creation of a ‘duty of candour’ for police officers.
But even when writing about a fictional incident, I soon found myself facing difficulties of a different kind. Broadcasts and broadsheets were dominated by large-scale disasters, many of them terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017 came the London Bridge attack, an incident that took place within the setting for my novel. I witnessed first-hand the bouquets of red roses that spanned the full width of the bridge. Handwritten messages to loved ones gradually blurring in all that London’s weather could throw at them. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries.
Susan Sontag said, ‘Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape.’ I couldn’t avoid that imagery overlaying my research. There is no doubt that some of will have made subtle inroads onto the pages of my novel, no matter how hard I resisted. But I had to make conscious decisions about if, and then how, I should let these disasters change the shape of the story I was writing. I had already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. I felt this would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, all of my research about accident investigation told me that any finding that an individual to blame is not only likely be biased, but the investigation will have failed to get to the root of how the disaster happened. Corporate Manslaughter remains an option, but I’m not sure there has been a single successful conviction since the concept was introduced, and there are dangers in blaming organisations. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in an Underground station, I picked one of the best examples of an organisation that is subjected to crippling external pressures, London’s rapidly growing population being the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties in expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these problem more concentrated than in the City of London. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground to be responsible for my fictional disaster.
Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the enormous scale of the devastation, but because facts quickly emerged to suggest that the spread of the fire and its horrific consequences could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I now risked creating the impression that I was commentating on two London disasters and, given that I live in London rather than Liverpool, wasn’t this more likely? Of course, having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was also seriously out of step with public opinion.
Fortunately, the focus of my novel isn’t the disaster, but human drama. My real challenge was to translate the emotional fallout onto the page with delicacy and honesty and in a way that gave the characters dignity. That meant capturing all of the guarded memories, the survivor guilt, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson and the end of his family line, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who translates all their grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in the act of getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. Then there’s the perseverance, all of that drive and fight for justice, getting it down on the blank page and delivering something that gives cause for hope. There always has to be a story. Mine is about human resilience and the healing power of art.
What’s Smash all the Windows about?
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.
So who is Jane Davis?
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
Also by Jane Davis
I came to this book, the first in the Professor and Mrs Moriarty Mystery Series, because I so much enjoy the author’s Francis Bacon historical fiction series. The Moriarty books are different from the Francis Bacon books, as you would expect from such an accomplished writer, and it’s a mark of just how accomplished she is that – with just a couple of niggles, which I’ll come to – she manages so well the switch from Tudor times to the late Victorian age.
This book turns on its head the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. In Anna Castle’s version, Moriarty is an upright citizen of impeccable moral standing and honesty, while Holmes is a conceited, self-regarding bungler. Holmes is out to get Moriarty and to pin on him a series of murders, the unravelling of which is at the heart of this book. As with her Francis Bacon books, Castle brings us an outstanding heroine who would inspire in any man the thought, “My dear woman, just say the word.” And she does say the word (to Moriarty) and he responds as any red-blooded man might be expected to.
The niggles? They are not enormous, but they do matter. Anna Castle is American and writing a book set in Britain among British people is no easier for American writers than the reverse is for British writers. All the big, important stuff she gets right, but I found myself unwilling to believe that a London club of the quality Moriarty belongs to would serve its members American whiskey – and, sure enough, a few lines later she confirms that he is, in fact, drinking Scotch so it’s whisky and not whiskey. There are a few similar examples and, while they don’t detract from the quality of the book, they are there. There’s also a tendency, when her characters get into a real mess and you are wondering how on earth they are going to get out of it, to resort to the “With one bound she was free” solution. Finally, as a long-time fan of AE Housman, I was delighted in the early stages to discover that – like Housman and the object of his unrequited love, Moses Jackson – Moriarty is employed in the London Patent Office. Sure enough, Jackson turns up quite quickly and Housman immediately afterwards and I had great hopes that they would feature prominently in the novel, but that doesn’t happen. Perhaps in later books? We shall see.
Those are the reasons why I give this book four stars and not five, but I repeat that they do not detract from the enjoyment. I recommend this book without reserve to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, the unravelling of a crime, characters who emerge alive from the page and have completely believable motivations, a good love story, and/or first-class writing.