What’s your novel about? It’s a frequently-asked question for authors and the reply should trip off our tongues but often we struggle to retrieve that elevator pitch we thought we’d memorised.
With three books published, you’d think I’d have mastered the art of a quick summary but, of my three published novels, I’ve always found it easiest to pitch the first one After Leaving the Village and I think this is because of the themes: human trafficking, modern slavery, entrapment, community, how a life can change in an instant, and survival.
When I’m writing a novel, my conscious mind is teeming with the complexities of plot; developing compelling characters, who’ll come to life on the page, and instilling a sense of place. But, at a sub-conscious level, something different is going on – themes are developing.
My latest psychological suspense novel, Façade, just published by Darkstroke Books, is a tense and chilling family mystery. It opens in 1999 with the tragic drowning of a small child, George at the Stapleton family’s home. George’s much older sisters, Rachel and Imogen are teenagers at that time and the family is torn apart. Fast forward twenty years to 2019 and Rachel has built up a seemingly-successful property business, but her sister, Imogen, despite years living abroad with her failed rock star husband, Simon, has squandered everything and never owned a home. When Imogen’s husband dies in an accident in Spain, she returns to England where jealousy of her sister’s success drives her to extreme lengths in her quest for revenge.
Property is a major theme of Facade and supplies a sub-cast of characters in the shape of houses, houseboats, flats and cottages. At the centre of the mystery is The Old Rectory, a splendid Georgian house owned by Rachel and Imogen’s parents. The house was once perfect but is now decaying and, to each family member, The Old Rectory has a different meaning, keeping the family trapped in the past, by tragedy, envy, guilt and a burden of obligation. The Stapleton parents have a schizophrenic relationship with the house: it’s the place where their baby son, George, died but also a symbol of their lost wealth and prestige. To Rachel, the daughter who has supported her parents financially, it’s a never ending burden which traps her on a treadmill running a property business in a life that no longer fits.
For Imogen, the family home is a cause for resentment. She believes her parents have bankrolled her sister, Rachel’s business and are clinging on to their valuable house, rather than selling it and passing some of their wealth to her.
The title Façade is a metaphor. Absolutely nothing in the story or the relationships is what it seems. It’s not a coincidence that Rachel’s business is in property development. Throughout every economic cycle the property market turns from buoyant to slump. Rachel’s business might seem successful but, financially, it’s shaky.
The multitude of properties in Facade take on the guise of characters in their own right: The Old Rectory, the Lazy Lucy, Gamekeeper’s Cottage, the student house in Streatham (in a road where I once lived) and the tatty rented flat in Ibiza where Imogen is living at the time of Simon’s fatal accident.
But what sort of a theme is that? I hear you say. Property is superficial; it’s inter-generational theft. Well, yes, I agree with you to some extent. In the UK, property has often used as a proxy for something else. It can be a symbol of wealth or disguise an unhappy marriage by giving the outward appearance of the trappings of a comfortable home and that’s the point. In Façade, all of my characters are looking for home but they may not recognise it.
For the Stapleton parents, home was in the past when they had status and a baby son, born when they were in later life, to re-energise their stake in the future; for Rachel true meaning isn’t in her property business but should be in her family with her partner Jack and daughter Hannah, both of whom she neglects, while devoting her time and energy to a business that shackles her. But what about Imogen, the restless nomad who has travelled and lived in many countries but has never found home? One of Imogen’s friends finds her a place to live on a narrowboat, Lazy Lucy in the close-knit community of canal dwellers in Little Venice, London. In this healing environment, Imogen could begin to atone for her past but, when the opportunity arises, off she goes again, chasing wealth and the admiration she confuses with love. Imogen had found home but she didn’t recognise it.
One reviewer of an advance copy of Façade christened it as ‘twisty family noir’ and it absolutely is that but, under the surface, behind the veneer and beyond the façade, I hope readers will find plenty of material for book clubs to discuss on the theme of dysfunctional family relationships and the meaning of home.