My last blog described writing about victims and survivors in my novel The Silence Between Breaths which examines a terrorist attack and its impact on people caught up in it. Nineteen days after posting that blog came the brutal attack on Manchester, where I live. The response of people to that violence, the shared humanity and compassion and resilience have been humbling – and also made me so proud. This poem, written sometime ago, says something of what I feel about my adopted city.
we come from
Carlow Quetta Nanchang Port of Spain
from Peterloo showering bread and roses
all hard knocks and wild ambition
sharp sweet city of mongrels
threaded by cotton
grounded with attitude
arms wide open
singing the sky
My recent novels explore the impact of crime on ordinary people. They are not experts, not professionals, not detectives or forensic scientists, career criminals or lawyers or investigative journalists but people like you and me who are suddenly caught up in some horrific tragedy. They are victims and survivors. Their stories are about situations that frighten me and disturb me, the sort of thing that could happen to any one of us but that you never think will happen to you. In The Silence Between Breaths that tragedy is a terrorist attack. The current threat level in the UK is severe, meaning a terrorist attack is highly likely, and in recent weeks we’ve seen the attack at Westminster while others have been thwarted. The book follows nine characters to look at a range of responses to the threat of danger and the experience of trauma. Among those perspectives is that of a member of the terrorist’s family – a viewpoint I’ve heard little about in news and analysis. There are questions to be answered in the writing: how would each character cope, what they would do under such pressure? Questions I’m also asking of myself. When reading about real-life incidents I’ve been struck at how in the most harrowing of circumstances we have such great capacity for humanity and that’s something I’ve tried to capture in the story.
Sorry didn’t really cut it. Not when she’d lied an’ all. Told him she’d bought the ticket. Empty handed when his numbers came up. He divorced her.
Most of these books I heard about through reviews in the press or from recommendations on Twitter. A few I found while browsing the shelves in my local library. One of the pleasures of reading is entering new worlds and finding new voices. All these novels gave me that buzz. Happy reading.
Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land
Calling Major Tom by David Barnett
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Like the sun at dawn
Like warm dough
Like the birds of the air
Like the corn in the fields
Like a song
Like a smile
Like the hills of green
Like kites in the wind
Like the tide
It’s World Book Day today so a good time to spread the word about some books I’ve enjoyed (not that I need an excuse). Enjoy!
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary
Redemption Road by John Hart
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Behind by Elena Ferrante
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Believe No One by A.D. Garrett
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry
The first question people ask me when they hear about this book is not what the story is, or how it’s selling, or if it’s a crime novel but whether the title is a quote from something. It isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, but it does have that sort of ring. You can imagine it in a Shakespearean speech or a classic poem. It took months to find it. While writing the novel I’d used a working title that was way too cheesy (nope, not saying). Then I spent weeks exchanging emails with my publishers, even during my holiday on Kefalonia, chewing over possibilities. Long lists were compiled and considered. The book tells the story of a group of strangers on a train from Manchester to London who are caught up in a devastating event. Some proposed titles reflected the randomness of such tragedy: A Day Like Any Other, Out Of A Clear Blue Sky; others aimed to capture the characters’ response to sudden violence: You Can’t Kill The Spirit, The Kindness of Strangers; but nothing had the emotional resonance we were after. The Silence Between Breaths appears on the last list I submitted, along with other suggestions none of which had half the impact. I love how it echoes moments of the story, mirrors both the tension and the rupture that tears lives apart but also the contemplation that comes with such an experience. It’s an intriguing phrase and calls up a physical response in the reader. It’s perfect. And how I dreamt it up remains a mystery.
You text me a full stop. Harbinger of things to come or just your phone ‘playing silly beggars’ again? Stiff fingers and failing eyes. Low battery. I’m tempted to reply with a question mark. But resist. And pick up the landline.