Alex Marwood is the author of the Edgar-winning The Wicked Girls and the Macavity Best Mystery 2015, The Killer Next Door. Set at a paternal funeral, her third mystery, The Darkest Secret (out August 30th), took on a whole new shape when she found herself writing it in the aftermath of her own father's death.
When Life - and Death - Intrude on Writing
William Wordsworth opined in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads about how the best poetry comes from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. The old fraud clearly never had to work to modern commercial deadlines. Then again, perhaps the smart old bard had more sense than to write a novel about a parental funeral while hurtling towards not one, but two, of his own.
In fractured families, your siblings are the flotsam to which you cling in the hope of surviving the storm. And it continues as life progresses – even as it comes to an end. They’re the only ones who remember how it was, how it felt in the Then, who have some understanding of the complicated emotions that come with the death of a parent who was, in many ways, unsatisfactory, but whom one loved, and who loved one back within the limitations of their own flaws.
When I started writing The Darkest Secret, a tale of a funeral at which the much-married deceased’s daughters slowly uncover a terrible secret at the heart of their family history, I had two parents. By the time it was published, I had neither. I suppose that the subject of familial loss must have been to the forefront of my mind when I started planning the book, but the speed and the savagery with which the natural order descends upon one never fails to shock, however prepared one thinks one is.
Two years ago, on one of those blazing days you rarely see in the far north east of Scotland, a lone piper played a string of laments as we lowered our father into his grave. Afterwards, we changed into bright summer clothes and walked the younger generation down a rutted cart track to swim in the river Dee. We sat on the same rocks where my father and uncle stand in the photo that hangs on my living room wall – children eightysomething years ago, hurling pebbles into the peaty waters. I remember this spot well from my childhood, as my grandmother will have remembered it and her forebears before that. There are none of us left in Scotland now; globalisation and worldly ambition have carried us away. Our long history there is at an end, and all my father’s descendants are English.
Back in London, my own spiritual home, I attempted to throw myself back into work. I was halfway into the book when he died; too late to back out, deadline too close to put it aside and write something else. Instead, I sat in front of my screen, staring at the blankness and remembering. Remembering back to way before this era of bereavement, back to the first bereavement, the time when my father discarded his family in pursuit of self-fulfilment. As Mila says in my book, there aren’t too many tears in me now. I did most of my grieving when I was a child.
I couldn’t have chosen a better theme for self-sabotage, really: my father was increasingly ill as I decided to structure this book the way I did, and no amount of denial could excuse me for pretending that I wouldn’t be facing his death soon. At the time I told myself it was a device, an excuse to gather all the guilty parties, Golden Age style, in the same place, for their secrets to be uncovered. But I must have known what I was doing, deep down. I’ve always avoided bringing my personal experiences into my books, but with this one, they wanted to force themselves onto the page.
The Jackson family, the focal point of The Darkest Secret – one pernicious narcissist, four wives, five daughters, one of whom disappeared in mysterious circumstances at a party long ago – is profoundly dysfunctional. In comparison my own, with its simple history of divorce, drink and disgrace, was a stroll in the park. My parents did what they could manage after their own disastrous childhoods, but it wasn’t very much, and eventually the whole shooting match collapsed and we children became surplus to requirements. And these things leave their mark on you, however much you try not to let them. Mila, the primary narrator, has more of myself in her than any other of my characters. She has my diffidence, my hoarding habits, my cynicism masked by a veneer of bonhomie. And with the death of her father, she has a lifetime of unanswered questions.
But the difference between us, I realised as I slowly worked my way through – I’m not a plotter, I’m a total pantser who survives entirely on my editor’s nerves of steel – is that I have my sister. It’s so stupid. It has taken me until my fifties to realise that my sister has been the source of my survival in so many ways. So different in personality that we would never have been friends had we not been thrown together in adversity as we were, we got each other to school, through school – another place in our lives that was cold and unforgiving – and through the long sleepless nights as dramas, and there were so many dramas, unfolded.
Mila’s full sister has gone to the far side of the world, disowned her past, and her half-sisters, much younger, are virtual strangers, one vanished as a toddler; they’re little more than an unpleasant memory. Mila has struggled through essentially on her own. And I realised through my own sadness that the sadness of her existence was unbearable. So I gave her back her teenage half-sister, Ruby. I was well over halfway through the book before I discovered that what it was about – what it was really about – was family, and love, however faulty, and the surprising moments when those things will save you.
The last time I saw my mother, she believed that she was having a picnic by Lake Bala in northern Wales, with her own long-dead siblings. I knelt on the carpet in their living room and joined in, passing imaginary sandwiches and tiny pretend teacups, and was rewarded with the most open-faced, kiddish smiles I have ever seen on her often-troubled face. She died a couple of weeks before The Darkest Secret came out in the UK, her mind lost to Alzheimer’s, and I held her hand as she left. I dedicated the book to her. She never knew.
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