Reading around After I Left You: Anna’s silence and speaking out

Women’s fiction is often about choosing who to trust as much as it is about finding someone to love and be loved by in return. My new novel After I Left You is no exception, but my heroine Anna’s revelations about what happened to her in the past also touch on issues that are perhaps less often explored in the genre, and which I was determined to attempt to tackle… though also thoroughly intimidated by.

At this point I have to issue an all-caps *SPOILER ALERT* to anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book. I’m not going to unpick the fine detail of the story here, but the quotes and articles that follow will give you a pretty good idea of where it is heading – and also, perhaps, why it is such a difficult story for Anna to tell.

The newspaper and magazine articles that I’ve compiled here caught my eye not so much because I went looking for them as part of focused research, but because they helped me to understand the context in which I was working, whether I came across them during or after the process of writing the book. Yesterday I went along to talk to the first meeting of the Fe-line Book Club in Oxford and took these cuttings along with me, but in the end I didn’t share them. So, inspired by the points that came up during the book club, I thought I’d list the cuttings in a blog post, and hope they’ll be thought-provoking for readers who are looking to open the novel up for discussion.

I described the novel to the readers I met yesterday as a coming-of-age novel with a 17-year time lag, and I suggested that Anna was like a Snow White figure, a woman who has been effectively frozen ever since the trauma she went through when she was 21, at the end of her time at university. She is only now beginning to come back to life, acknowledge her past and lay claim to her future.

Anna has never spoken to anybody about what has happened to her, and as she tells her story she is moving towards the point when it will finally become possible for her to break her silence. It’s a novel about what is not said and about finally finding the courage to speak out. So why is it so difficult for Anna to speak freely? Why has she chosen to cope with what has been done to her by ignoring it, avoiding it, and behaving, more or less, as if it never happened?

Breaking the silence

I read Rebecca Mead’s excellent profile of Mary Beard in The New Yorker because of the light it promised to cast on how Mary Beard has dealt with online abuse. I encourage you to read the whole article, but here are some quotes by way of introduction.

The article opens with an account of a talk Mary Beard gave earlier this year about ‘the many ways that men have silenced outspoken women since the days of the ancients’. It goes on to describe how, in 2000, Beard wrote an essay for the LRB which included an account of being raped in 1978 while travelling in Italy as a graduate student.

‘“To all intents and purposes, this was rape,” she wrote. “I did not want to have sex with the man and had certainly not given consent. If I appeared compliant, it was because I had no option: I was in a foreign city, with enough of the local language to ask directions to the cathedral maybe, but not to search out a reliable protector and explain convincingly what was happening.”‘

Beard did not report the assault, and over the years that followed her own private understanding of what had happened to her shifted: ‘She had even found herself “making sense of the incident as a much more emphatically willed part of my sexual history…”’

‘The difficulty of knowing how to talk about rape is not limited to those who have experienced it, she wrote. It is an enduring cultural problem… “Rape is always a (contested) story, as well as an event,” Beard wrote. “It is in the telling of rape-as-story, in its different versions, its shifting nuances, that cultures have always debated most intensely some of the most unfathomable conflicts of sexual relations and sexual identity.”‘

False allegations and a question about fiction

This column by Eva Wiseman, which appeared in The Observer in March 2013, quotes a Crown Prosecution Service report which found that over a 17-month period there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape, and 35 for false allegations of rape. False allegations of rape, it would seem, are relatively rare: but not so in fiction. The column cites Atonement, Gone Girl and numerous other novels and films as examples:

‘It’s a trope that exists because it’s powerful – it moves on stories and confuses the reader, and builds sympathy in a raw and painful way. It’s a plot device that works, but one that should be questioned… When real occasions of false allegations are published, they’re news for the same reasons – they’re lurid and exciting, and they make you feel something. But they’re news because they are so rare… the idea that it is a widespread problem, a weapon women use, is fiction.’

The truth and the ‘cultural script’

‘It should be a given: not a lot of us endorse the idea that a drunk woman is at least partly responsible for her own rape – but in Australia, one in five do.’

So begins a recent article in The Guardian by Jessica Reed. It goes on to say this:

‘Researchers have long pointed to a widely believed cultural script of what constitutes a “real” rape – the trope of the lone lady being attacked at night as she made her way home through dark alleys. Such a fantasy makes, one suspects, the idea of rape slightly easier to digest than the truth. But these are the facts:

  • The great majority of rapists were known to their victims.
  • Approximately half of reported sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption (on the victim’s part, the perpetrator’s part, or both)
  • Gendered violence is a learned behaviour upheld and reinforced by a broader social context (our family, community, a country’s cultural expectations and popular culture)
  • Men are less likely to intervene and try to stop gendered violence when they perceive their peers to find such abuse acceptable
  • Social censure (that is, public repudiation of violent behaviours and/or perpetrators) is among the most effective means of preventing violence’

‘A learned behaviour upheld and reinforced by a broader social context’… For more about how such learned behaviours can be changed, see the TED talk by Jackson Katz about preventing sexual violence and domestic abuse.

According to this report in The Guardian, some Oxford and Cambridge colleges are now introducing consent workshops. The article includes a comment from Mary Beard: ‘”Consciousness raising about sexual consent has to be a good idea,” she said. “Whether consciousness is most effectively raised by a compulsory workshop remains to be seen.”‘ Anna Bradshaw, Oxford University Student Union vice president (women), is also quoted: ‘No matter the progress we are making there’s still this massive cultural problem. Rape myths are believed and a victim blaming culture persists.’

Fiction. Cultural script. Popular culture. Myths.

The stories that we tell each other matter. What do we find truthful? What are we willing to believe? And who are we willing to listen to?

More blog posts about After I Left You

Book group questions for After I Left You

about to set off for the launch party

about to set off for the launch party

After I Left You is out there! The launch was held last week, on a beautiful moonlit evening in the garden at Mostly Books in Abingdon (you can read about it on the Mostly Books blog and the Abingdon blog). Now it’s on the shelves at independent bookshops, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and is also available from Amazon. In a couple of weeks’ time I’m due to do my very first book group talk about the book, with the book group at work.

I’ve had a think about questions that might be helpful for book groups who want to discuss the novel, and here they are. I don’t think there are any spoilers here, but you might want to wait until you’ve read it before you look through them – they will definitely make more sense then!

If you have read the book, I’d really welcome your thoughts. Do let me know if there are any other questions that you think would be useful, and if there are any you would particularly like to discuss with other readers – and also, of course, I would be very interested to know your responses!

If you’re in the Oxford area and your book group is going to be discussing AILY and you’d like me to come along and talk about the book, post a comment to let me know and let’s see if we can sort something out. Also, plans are shaping up for an event in north London next month – details to follow.

After I Left You on the Book Buzz shelf in Mostly Books

After I Left You on the Book Buzz shelf in Mostly Books

Discussion questions for After I Left You

What was your reaction to what happened to Anna on the night of the ball?

What are the fairytale elements of Anna’s story? What, or who, makes the fairytale go wrong?

Do you think it is possible to stay with your first love? What would happen if you bumped into your first love in a bookshop one day?

How are the different friendships in the story represented?

One of the key friendships in the novel is Anna’s friendship with Keith. How would you describe this friendship?

What other novels spring to mind that include a portrayal of a friendship between a man and a woman?

Who leaves who in the book? Which characters make peace with each other, and what does it take for this to happen?

By the end of the novel, what change has Anna experienced? How is she different to the beginning of the novel?

lucky nail varnish ready for the launch - wore it for  my Thames swim too!

lucky nail varnish ready for the launch – wore it for my Thames swim too!

What makes a great love story?

a romantic rose... plus thorns

a romantic rose… plus thorns

‘Reader, I married him.’ A great love story can end that way, but only after a load of trouble. As we know from Shakespeare, true love involves a rocky ride, in literature at least. A compelling romance must have drama; someone, or something, has to oppose it and try to stop it happening. And in a truly great love story, the threat to the lovers has to appear insurmountable. We want to believe that love can conquer all, but at some point in the story, it has to look horribly likely that love is going to lose.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars the stakes are sky-high from the outset; the forces ranged against the young lovers are depression, loneliness, illness and death. But that doesn’t stop the spark between them at that first meeting. If anything, it intensifies it.

True love is stubborn to a fault, and flourishes in the face of poor odds. It is also not sensible, convenient or rational. I can understand why Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice, I can even admire her pragmatism, but nobody would dream of describing their relationship as a great love story.

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True love changes the lovers; in a really great love story, there will always be a transformation (or several). Take Romeo, who is teased by his friends at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet for moping around and pining for someone who isn’t even interested in him. He believes himself to be in love, but he doesn’t really know what it is. Then he meets Juliet and – kapow! – he is no longer a self-indulgent boy.

He is also no longer unrequited. Great love stories are never one-sided; there may be spells of confusion and separation and alienation – in fact, there almost certainly will be – but ultimately, the lovers will find some kind of equilibrium, even if this is only possible when they have lost their lives (think Wuthering Heights). They might not start off as equals, at least not in society’s eyes, but they have to end up that way, from the reader’s point of view if not the world’s.

Sparring, rivals and secrets

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite love stories, and had such a big impact on me that it crept into my very first novel, which I wrote as a child, without me even realising it. My story featured a burning house and a first wife tucked away somewhere, and it ended with a wedding. (I hope it’s not a spoiler to note that the quote at the beginning of this post – ‘Reader, I married him’ – is Jane’s.)

the end of my first-ever novel

the end of my first novel

Jane is Rochester’s employee and his social inferior, but she is not about to let him get away with anything. This leads to a fair amount of sparring, which he seems to quite enjoy – they are clearly comfortable with each other – but a series of increasingly deadly threats rise up to force them apart. Jane has a love rival: the beautiful, wealthy and heartless Blanche Ingram. And then there is the madwoman in the attic, and the revelation that forces Jane to flee. Lovers do not keep secrets from each other; any attempt to keep the past locked away out of sight is an enemy to love.

cover of After I Left You

In After I Left You, my new novel, Anna last said goodbye to Victor, her university boyfriend, seventeen years ago, and she has never told him the full story of the chain of events that led to her decision to cut off all contact with him. Something has silenced her, and she has lived a kind of half-life ever since.

When they meet again, her old feelings for him begin to return; but if she is to seize her chance of happiness, she is going to have to make the leap of faith that is always part of love, overcome her fears, give up her secret and speak out. Where there’s love there’s hope, and in any love story there is the possibility of transformation, and a question to be answered: will they or won’t they come together in the end?

A version of this post first appeared on the Diana Verlag blog. Diana Verlag is the publisher of the German edition of After I Left You.

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You

Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

After I Left You, nostalgia, old flames and the power of secrets

After I Left You fresh from the printers

After I Left You fresh from the printers

Some years ago, standing by the buffet at a family occasion, I witnessed a brief encounter between a middle-aged woman and an old flame. As they turned towards each other they both seemed to soften, and although the years didn’t quite fall away from them, it was possible to glimpse their younger selves.

I didn’t know anything about the history between them, but then, I didn’t really need to. It was a public moment that was also very private; it was quite clear that whatever was involved in that exchange was none of anybody else’s business.

Inevitably, the time came for them both to move on, and be reabsorbed into the social scene going on all around them, with its greetings and small talk and introductions and catchings-up; and it was almost, but not quite, as if whatever had passed between them had never been.

The hideous lilac bridesmaid’s dress

At the beginning of my new novel, After I Left You (out July 31), Anna, the heroine and narrator, has a similarly poignant conversation with Victor, her first love. Their paths cross in a London bookshop. She is not looking her best, having come in to shelter from the downpour outside; she is drenched, her hair is dripping, and she is carrying a hideous lilac bridesmaid’s dress over one arm. They talk, briefly, and part with much left unsaid.

The past may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.

For Anna, this meeting does more than stir up memories of love. She hasn’t seen Victor for 17 years; she cut off all contact with him and their group of friends from university when she left. He reminds her of times she would rather forget and the secret she has never told him, and she is not at all sure that she is ready to face up to the past.

But try as she might, she can’t keep away from it. Before long her story jumps back to the early 90s and she is eighteen again, arriving at university and meeting Victor for the first time. The novel moves between two timelines – her student days and her present – and gradually reveals exactly what it is that Victor doesn’t know.

my writing desk

at my writing desk

Back to the 90s…

That’s part of the power of secrets. Truth has a way of burrowing up to the surface, and a revelation can break down the distinction between then and now, and bring what happened years ago right into the spotlight of the present. The past can change us and change with us. It may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.

I’ve always loved the idea of time travel, and until someone finally invents a suitably modified DeLorean for real, novels are the closest we’ve got. Like Anna, I was a student in the early 90s, when it still seemed yuppie to have a mobile phone, only geeks had email and you left messages for people on a sheet of A4 blu-tacked to their door. (Very public.)

The Conservatives seemed to have been in forever, pub interiors were havens for smokers (and there were many of them), ciabatta and cappuccino were sophisticated novelties and if somebody made you a mixtape you knew they really liked you. It increasingly seems like another world, and working on After I Left You gave me the chance to revisit it.

When I was a student: my 20th birthday

When I was a student: my 20th birthday

I have since had the strange double experience of walking into a scene that I had already written about from Anna’s perspective. Earlier this year, I went to a college reunion. Mine was much less dramatic than Anna’s. There was no Hollywood glamourpuss having an illicit fag in the ladies’, and nobody ostentatiously flirting to provoke an ex-spouse, sobbing in the chapel, or dodging a confrontation in the bar. (Not as far as I know, anyway. I left at midnight.)

But, like Anna, I did find that in some ways twenty-odd years really don’t make a lot of difference. Everybody’s younger selves were still there, and became more visible the longer you looked. It was a vivid reminder that the past is always out there somewhere; chances are that sooner or later, whether you seek it out or not, you’re going to walk right into it.

off to a college reunion

off to a college reunion

A version of this blog post recently appeared on The Page Turners Facebook page.

The new cover of After I Left You

cover of After I Left You

After I Left You has a new look! This is the cover design for the paperback, which is due out at the end of July.

I hope you like it. I think it’s a beauty, and captures perfectly a certain kind of sunny afternoon, and the feeling of being free and happy in a golden place and time.

I have this song by George Ezra on the brain at the moment, and the lyrics seem at least partly apt: ‘Give me one good reason why I should never make a change…’

It’s interesting how cover designs can change over time. The initial cover for my first book, Stop the Clock, featured three pairs of legs, representing the three different characters; the career woman, the uber-mum, and the unassuming girl-next-door. This was good fun for me, as I got to help draw up the prop shopping list. In the end, though, it hit the shelves with a quite different look – the lady sipping coffee, reading her newspaper (probably checking out the column written by Tina, the career woman, which causes all sorts of problems when her friends think she is writing about them.)

Sometimes covers even feed into a book. There’s a scene in Julie Cohen’s excellent Dear Thing that involves a pair of baby shoes. Julie mentioned that she put the baby shoes into the book after she’d seen the cover design for the hardback, which featured someone holding a pair – it was too good a metaphor to miss!

BIG thank you to everyone who has said kind things about the cover of After I Left You – here are some of the comments – and thank you so much to everyone who has shared it. The response has been lovely and I’m really grateful.

 

The After I Left You tour of places in Oxford I love

Oxford's Bridge of Sighs

Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs, May morning, early 90s…

I was nervous about setting my new novel, After I Left You, in Oxford, but my editor talked me into it. It’s a challenge to write about a place you love without pretending that it’s somewhere else, especially if it’s very close to home.

In the end, I’m really glad Oxford’s in there. Books need to have avatars of things you feel strongly about in them. It’s as if the book digests your emotional attachments and translates them into something that is no longer personal, but is (hopefully) available to anybody who reads the story.

When I was a student: my 20th birthday

My 20th birthday in Oxford

I did fictionalise Oxford a little, and blurred some of its geography and landmarks. Here are ten things I love about Oxford and the surrounding countryside, and suggest you sample if you go there.

1. Pubs.

Alison Mercer at the Perch in Oxford

at the Perch in Oxford on a family day out

The Eagle and Child, The Turf and the Lamb and Flag are all lovely, the Perch and the Trout are vital stopping-off points on the Port Meadow walk (see 5), and I have fond memories of some of the Cowley pubs, including The Bullingdon Arms as was (last time I looked, it had turned into a nitespot with girls with shiny dresses.)

But my favourite of all is the King’s Arms, the inspiration for the Wickham Arms in After I Left You, ‘a city pub with a hall of fame of past patrons displayed on its dark green walls: poets, politicians, sporting heroes… captured in dim corners and on banquettes, their features both emphasized and softened by the shadowy, forgiving light.’

I’m pretty sure I had some Moments of Destiny in the King’s Arms. Anna certainly has one in the Wickham Arms in After I Left You.

2. Bookshops.

I love having tea and people-watching in Blackwell’s. There’s always someone nearby tapping importantly on a laptop: writing what? An essay, a novel, a thesis, an email to a lover or a longlost friend? I also love a browse in Waterstones, where I very nearly ended up working after I graduated (I ended up taking a job at the JR hospital instead, as a secretary in the IT department.)

3. Cafés.

My heart belongs to the Queen’s Lane café, which brings back memories of cutting class to eat carrot cake with the indie-music-loving, long-fringed boy of my dreams. My son, who has autism and a fascination for things that go round, loves Brown’s in the covered market for the ceiling fans.

4. Colleges.

Ox skyline

I first visited Oxford when I was 10 or 11. I was into dungeon-and-dragons style books at the time, where you had to choose which way to go and then turn to the page to find out if you’d arrived at treasure or a nasty imp. Oxford, with its cloisters and quadrangles and halls, struck me as being a made-up fantasy place like the kingdoms in the books, where anything could be lurking round the corner.

5. Port Meadow.

Port Meadow, Oxford

Port Meadow

6. The White Horse.

A friend who read a proof copy of After I Left You said she was waiting for the White Horse to turn up, and sure enough, a version of it does.

On the way back from visiting the ancient chalk landmark, the friends discuss the game of truth or dare they played when they first met, leading to this exchange, which is pretty much the set-up of the story in a nutshell:

‘No one went for truth, then,’ I said.

‘No,’ Clarissa agreed. ‘In the end, no one did,’ and she started the drive back to Oxford.

7. The river.

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on the boat from Abingdon to Oxford

I love a walk through Christ Church meadows, and the Salter’s Steamers boat trip from Abingdon to Oxford.

In After I Left You, when Anna meets up with her friend Meg and looks through her photo album, she sees a snap of the friends together on a bench near the river: ‘there we all were, squeezed on to a bench overlooking the river on a frosty autumn morning, happy and complete and sure of ourselves, a pack surveying its territory’.

And here’s the cover of the German edition of After I Left You (out in June!) showing what I imagine to be the same bench years later.

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You

Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

If you go punting, in my experience, the trick is to find someone who knows what they’re doing and persuade them to do the punting bit, while you lounge around taking in the scenery and drinking something fizzy.

8. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Dinosaurs! Shrunken heads! Witchy stuff!

This is where we first meet Keith in After I Left You, ‘standing awkwardly in one of the dinosaur footprints… as if half attempting to strike a pose and half wanting just to get the photo over with.’

9. St Margaret’s Church and St Margaret’s Well.

An otherworldly place, along the lane from the Perch. The well inspired the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland and it’s the model for St. Bartholomew’s well in After I Left You, which is also in a churchyard:

A canopy of leaves sheltered the little congregation of the dead from the wind, the sun and the rain. It was as if we were already inside, if not a church, then some other protected space.

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my daughter took this pic near Port Meadow

10. Bleinheim Palace.

It’s a magnificent building, but what I love most about Bleinheim is the view. In After I Left You, there’s a stately home called Shawcross Hall where Keith spends a happy summer showing tourists round the orangery, and where Anna is finally given the chance to confront the past.

I was so lulled by the sun and the champagne and the scent of grass and lavender and roses, and the gentle thud of elderly pop hits issuing from the grand house behind me, that I didn’t even jump when I heard footsteps and realized that someone was about to find me.

What happens next? After I Left You is out in paperback in July and will be available from all good bookstores – but if you can’t wait till then, it’s available for Kindle and in other ebook formats now (click on ‘buying options’ to see the different available formats.)

the cover of After I Left YouSomething else I love about Oxfordshire, which you can’t help but notice wherever you are, is that it has such big and beautiful skies.

Oxfordshire sky, as seen from our house

Oxfordshire sky, as seen from our house

 

Ebook publication day for After I Left You

Today is the ebook publication day for After I Left You. We have just celebrated with Waitrose passion cake and cups of tea. It feels strange… but lovely. It’s out!

You can buy After I Left You from Amazon and find out about other ebook formats from the Transworld website (click on buying options to see a list of suppliers). And here I am reading the first page.


The black bars are censoring the background mess in my house… No, not really – my other half and I recorded this last night using our new camera and we are on a bit of a learning curve! It took two minutes to film and rather longer to manage to upload! I hope it whets your appetite and leaves you wanting to find out what happens next.

Have ignored the rain, paused for thought and *swooned*. Gorg... on Twitpic