“What do you like to read for light relief?” This was a question put to me during a recent radio interview, as we discussed the deeper issues explored in Honor’s Shadow. I replied that I don’t enjoy crime stories, thrillers or light romances; but that I enjoyed the humorous Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding. Reflecting later on this exchange, I realised that I don’t really look for light relief in fiction. (Though my guilty pleasure is flicking through Hello and Heat and the like.) What I want from fiction is something thought provoking and emotionally moving and disturbing.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, reputedly turned down by 35 literary agents, was judged as a dark and depressing plot with characters that could not be liked. Several years after its eventual publication, the book went on to become a huge success by word of mouth, and has just been released as a film. Dark as it is, the compelling plot and the fraught relationship between a mother and son caught the collective imagination. From the outset, we know that Kevin killed several of his school mates. The book is an exploration of Kevin’s life, and his relationship with his mother, told through a series of letters from his mother to his father, in an attempt to understand this devastating event. So we know from the start that there can be no happy ending to this story.
The Fifth Child, one of Doris Lessing’s lesser known novels, tells the story of a picture perfect family: Mum, Dad, and four clever and well adjusted children, living a happy family life in a lovely home. The mother, Harriet, wants another child, and persuades her reluctant husband to agree. But their fifth child, Ben, is an oddity. He looks strange, unlike any other family member, and abnormal; his behaviour is awkward and odd. Lessing cleverly avoids making Ben a stereotype: we never get a diagnosis of his problems; but odd he undoubtedly is, as judged by the medical establishment. His family fracture, unable to survive such a challenge to their sunlit happiness. Harriet is unable to sacrifice Ben to save the family, as her husband wants, and we see how torn she is: only she is able to love Ben, and so she must, whatever the cost. So there is no happy ending in this story either.
Honor’s Shadow, a story explicitly of the darker, shadow side of human nature explores the lives of two women and the events that are set in motion when a shadow from the past catches up with them, and they are both stalked by potential disaster. All the characters in the book have their good side and their bad side; heroes and villains cannot be identified. I experimented with many different endings, before finding a resolution that worked for the story, that captured both the dark and the light elements of the characters and their lives.
Successful stories of the dark side rely upon readers who can identify with characters who are real, complex, and flawed; they are likeable and successful some of the time, but not all of the time; they can largely control their feelings and behaviour, but sometimes can’t, and the resulting pain and mayhem can cause untold damage, in ever widening circles. As Lionel Shriver recently commented in an article “Perfectly Flawed – In Defense of Unlikeable Characters”
Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.
Stories from the dark side are haunting and unforgettable, provoking echoes in the reader’s own life and relationships. They are, essentially, tragedies: Eva in “Kevin” and Harriet in the Fifth Child, have made their choices, consequences have been realised, and happiness is no longer an option.
Hope is gone. What darker story is there?