Blog tour: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings 

Last year, I was on holiday with my family and my father told us the story of ‘The Fox’, who operated not far from where he grew up in Berkhamsted. He remembers a feeling that everyone was understandably on edge, and even on one occasion, when my grandparents were out, he pretended that he’d fallen asleep in the kitchen whilst studying so he didn’t have to go upstairs in the rambling, creaky house that he grew up in. As he told us a little more about the Fox, and what he did, my then-sixteen year old brother said furiously ‘You expect us to go to sleep after this?’ And indeed, we were staying in quite an isolated and not hugely secure house at the time… Malcolm Fairley was eventually arrested and jailed for his crimes. He was released under a new identity in 2012.

So when I received We All Begin As Strangers, I assumed I’d be reading a fictionalised version of the true events. But it quickly becomes apparent that what interests debut novelist Harriet Cummings more, rather than Fairley’s violent attacks on people, are reports that sometimes he would do no more than flick through people’s photo albums, build dens for himself in their houses, or even simply watch them in their sleep, before slipping away soundlessly.


Reminiscent of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, We All Begin As Strangers is the story of a village filled wth secrets that its inhabitants are desperate to protect. But unlike Goats and Sheep, in which the residents come together to protect a terrible crime from being revealed, Harriet Cummings’ carefully drawn debut explores the secrets that the residents are desperate to keep hidden from each other, even their nearest and dearest.

In the stiflingly hot summer of 1984 in the village of Heathcote, a mysterious figure called the Fox is creeping into people’s homes through backdoors, open windows, and moving things around, or leaving curious objects with them. He seems to know all their secrets, and is happy to let them know it.

The novel opens with Deloris, a Londoner who has moved to Heathcote to marry the rich and obnoxious Harvey. Stifled not only by the heat, but by the expectations of married life, and finding only escape in the soaps she watches obsessively, she almost welcomes the gossip around the Fox as a sign of some sort of excitement. Until the kind-hearted Anna, loved by all, goes missing. It is clear that the Fox is responsible. The villagers alternately rally together or turn against one another – for if the Fox can take Anna, he could too reveal all the secrets they the villagers have been harbouring. And he could be any one of them.

Harriet Cummings has built a cast of completely believable characters, all of whom are keeping often painful secrets which the Fox is trying to tease into plain view. It is here, for me, where this novel works best, in its representation of people, in all their weaknesses, follies, and small kindnesses. From Jim, the vicar desperately seeking redemption, to Stan who wants nothing more than acceptance from the rest of his village, and Brian the young copper, always wondering what could have been – all are incredibly, believably human. I also loved the 1980s setting building, from the references to Dallas (‘Oh J.R., how could you?‘), to the food (at a dinner party, Deloris serves vol au vents and blacmange, amongst other things.)

I enjoyed this surprisingly gentle, thoughtful debut, and I can’t help but wonder what people who lived through that tense time in Leighton Buzzard, Tring, Berkhamsted, will make of it…

And now, Harriet Cummings has very kindly joined me at Back to the Books Blog, to tell us a bit about the publishing process as part of her blog tour!


My Publishing Journey by Harriet Cummings

How did you find an agent?

I did a novel writing course with Faber Academy which culminated in an event where all the students read extracts of their work-in-progress to a room full of agents. A terrifying experience! But I got my wonderful agent off the back of this and we’ve worked together since.

What was your writing process like for this book?

I’d previously ditched another novel because I couldn’t work out a satisfying ending. With this one I came up with a plan first – nothing too detailed, just a couple of pages that included the key turning points in the story and, importantly, an ending I was excited about. This approach gave me a great sense of direction which meant I could really build up momentum in my writing.

I was fortunate to be able to devote three months to simply writing this book (I’m a freelance copywriter and able to juggle my time like this). Throwing myself into the writing meant I could become really absorbed in it without distractions of other work. I realise I was incredibly lucky this way!

Are you part of a writing group?

Yes, I’m part of a group with seven others. We take it in turns to share short stories or chapters of novels we’re working on, then get written notes and feedback from the others. I’ve found this process really useful and don’t think I’d have gotten a publishing deal without it. Apart from receiving lots of pointers, it’s gotten me used to sharing work and overcoming the fear of exposure. Having said all this I wouldn’t say it’s essential to always share work with others. Writing is incredibly subjective and arguably the best stories are not decided by a committee! I’d say people should do whatever feels right to them, even if that’s showing no one your work until you submit it to an agent or publisher.

Any surprises about the publishing industry?

Lots because I was fairly clueless to begin with! Before getting a book deal I didn’t really allow myself to think about what it’d be like, as if this would be tempting fate. There were then various things to learn about, say, the editorial process and how to go about generating publicity. (I used Twitter before but was nervous about shouting too much about my book, knowing this wasn’t the best approach.) But everyone has been very encouraging and supportive, not brusque or business-like in the slightest. One thing that has surprised me is how many people are involved in publishing a book – not just the editors and proofreader of the editorial team but also design, marketing, publicity and sales teams.

What advice would you give to other writers?

Write the book that makes you feel excited. The one you’d want to pull off a bookshelf. It’s so tempting to try and guess what the market will like and want. As writers of course we want to please others and to sell books. But the trouble is no one knows exactly what people will want after the months or years it can take to write and publish a book. More to the point, arguably you can only best write the books you personally believe in. The characters and settings you create can only be created by you. We need to each embrace our own individuality or else we’ll just create cultural litter.

We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings is published by Orion on 20 April in hardback and eBook

Thanks so much to Virginia Woolstencroft, who has possibly the most enviable name in all of publishing, for the review copy and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

‘The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.’

This is the eye-catching opening line from Sara Flannery Murphy’s ambitious debut, a ghost story and a psychological thriller rolled into one. Edie works at the Elysian Society as a ‘body’, people who channel the spirits of the dead so that their loved ones can keep in touch. There are rules of course. It’s a controlled environment. They can’t contact suicides, and they can’t contact people they don’t know, like the woman who attempts to solve a murder. Edie is the perfect body. Detached and distant from others, she is an expert at channelling the dead. Until she meets Patrick Braddock.

Patrick Braddock is contacting his glamorous wife Sylvia, who drowned in suspicious circumstances. To her surprise, Edie feels an instant connection to Patrick, and finds it harder and harder to shake Sylvia off, the longer she spends as her. Is she really falling for Patrick, or is she falling under the indomitable Sylvia’s spell? And to what extent is Patrick himself taking advantage of her? As Edie’s feelings for Patrick grow, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious circumstances around Sylvia’s death. Previously a guarded character, who hides from the reader as much as from those around her, and a model ‘body’, Edie finds herself taking greater and greater risks to stay close to Patrick and to uncover the truth. And despite her attempts to keep her own secrets hidden, Edie finds her past increasingly hard to conceal.

As a well as a riveting and uncanny ghost story, The Possessions is a perceptive exploration of our attitudes to death and grief. As Sylvia gets to know Patrick, the neighbourhood is in thrall to the murder of a young woman who the police have named ‘Hopeful Doe.’ Later when her true identity is revealed, there is almost a sense of deflation –  the ‘nameless, angelic girl’ has become ‘a specific woman.’ If we could talk to our dead, would it help us grieve? Or would it simply anchor us further to the past.

Enthralling, haunting, touching, and with more than a hint of a feminist dystopia, The Possessions, for me, marks Sara Flannery Murphy as one to watch.

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy is out now, published by Scribe.  

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Almost as fascinating as reading this scalpel-sharp examination of a destructive marriage is listening to the author Gwendoline Riley speak about it. Whilst interviewers from Marielle Frostrup on Open Book or Susie at Dulwich Books sought to judge either character one way or another, she had a different opinion each time, so it was with curiosity and interest that I picked up First Love.

IMG_0137

Neve, a writer in her thirties, is engaged in a turbulent and toxic marriage to the older Edwyn. From one moment, their relationship veers from the loving (‘we have a little cuddle…we don’t talk much in the evenings but we’re very affectionate’) to sheer vitriolic hostility, in which her advances are rejected and ridiculed, and vicious accusations are thrown around: ‘You’re like a baby, really, aren’t you? You won’t be happy until we’re both just crawling around this place in our own shit.’ 

As Neve traces the journey that led her to her relationship with Edwyn, we meet her strange and aggressive father who ate himself to death, and her prudish but oddly needy mother. We meet a musician, who Neve has never been able to forget, and a picture forms of a woman torn between wanting love and companionship, but also desperately craving independence, which itself chafes against Edwyn’s need to be needed and appreciated.

Riley captures with razor-like accuracy the intimate cruelties that only someone close to you can know can land, and the unique nature of cruelties within different relationships. But she writes just as perfectly about the pleasant and comforting moments spent with someone you know almost as well as you know yourself; the funny and often totally incomprehensible in-jokes that develop, the nicknames that you’d rather die than accidentally reveal (‘Mr Pusskins’ ‘my little smelly puss’).

First Novel is a masterpiece, sharply observed and strangely compelling – like watching a beautifully written car crash, you can’t look away.

 

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Purely by coincidence, I read this just after Emma Flint’s excellent Little Deaths, and despite the two very different settings, I was struck by the similarities. Both books are about men pursuing women at all costs, stopping at nothing to see them locked up, and both explore how easily mob mentality becomes whipped up. Increasingly, both of these themes seem disturbingly prescient.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown takes the historical figure of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witch-hunter general’ who records say sent at least 300 women to their deaths in just a couple of years. His motivation is mainly unknown, with the financial recompense from the villages he rid of witches suggested by some historians and his opponents as a key factor. With few records to give us any clues about Matthew Hopkins, and how he came to flourish, the author has invented Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister, who returns to Manningtree in Essex from London, pregnant and alone following the death of her husband. When they were growing up, Matthew was bullied by other children and shunned for the disfiguring burn marks on his face from a childhood accident. But now, he assists a group of powerful men who have suffered grievances, and have come to suspect witchcraft as the cause – and he enjoys this proximity to power. Alice watches, unable, or unwilling, to stop him, despite the urging of those around her. Penniless and with a baby on the way, she is dependent on Matthew’s charity. Anyway, witchcraft accusations are nothing new, but they’re usually thrown out before anything can happen. Also, she isn’t particularly fond of one of the accused women, having long worried that her late husband held a candle for her… but she has underestimated her brother’s zeal. As the number of women in gaol increases, Alice is no longer allowed to stand and watch, and is instead forced to take a more active role.

Whether Beth Underdown intended for modern parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 1600s, and the increasing polarisation of views of today, I don’t know. But as one of the accused muses ‘I suppose a person will confess to anything if they have not slept’, I found impossible not think of Donald Trump’s insistence that ‘torture absolutely works’. Initially convinced that ‘that can’t happen here’, Alice becomes increasingly complicit in her brother’s crimes, initially wanting to keep her head down, attempting to offset his mania through small acts of kindness, and only finding the will to stand up to him when it is too late. And that surely is the scariest bit – the age-old question: what would you do?

The book also subtly if intrinsically ties class and gender into the fear of witchcraft, with Alice’s mother in law theorising that rich men always expect those around them to resent their possessions and good fortune, and send ill-wishes their way. Alice herself ponders about how even insane and homeless men can be found gainful employment, but a lonely woman is a target. And Matthew’s witch-hunting zeal has as much to do with his hatred of women, as his piety, his unpopularity as a child, and his disappointment at not following his father’s footsteps to the ministry.

Well-researched, and genuinely unsettling, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a convincing, gripping and affecting account of the witch trials, exploring how fear and scapegoating spreads, why innocently standing by can never be so innocent, and how power becomes impossible to relinquish.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published 2nd May by Viking

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Interesting footnote. Whilst looking for a jacket image for this review, I discovered that there was once a very sweet-looking pub called The Essex Serpent near Covent Garden. It is now a shoe shop. That’s a shame…


The Essex Serpent opens with Cora Seaborne, newly widowed but not unhappy about this – indeed, the novel is punctuated with memories of Michael’s cruelties small and large, from plucking several hairs from her head and leaving her with a small bald spot, to pressing a candlestick against her collarbone hard enough to scar. Given a new lease on life, she departs with her devoted companion Martha and her obsessive son Francis for Colchester to look for fossils, inspired by the fossil hunter Mary Anning. There, to her delight, rumours abound of the mythical Essex Serpent, picking off the locals one by one on the Essex coast in Aldwinter. Cora is convinced that it could be a new species and determines to track it down. When she arrives in Aldwinter, she meets the vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to crush rumours of the Essex Serpent, seeing it as a distraction from real faith. Having initially been very suspicious of the other, Cora and Will develop an extremely close friendship – agreeing on nothing, yet inexorably drawn to each other.

This is primarily, for me, a book about love, and all the forms it can take, from friendship, and its ensuing friendly jealousies, to romantic love, requited or otherwise. Will is devoted in his love for his beautiful wife Stella, yet the deep friendship and love that builds between himself and Cora is something different and indescribable. Luke Garrett, the doctor and Cora’s close friend, loves Cora unrequitedly, but eventually finds solace in his friendship with a colleague. It is also about how love can motivate us, and change us – from George Spencer, who becomes an ardent defender of slum dwellers because of his love for the working class and socialist Martha.

It’s also a book about perceptions, and how we make assumptions and interpret signs as we wish to. Cora and Will have almost hilarious preconceptions of what the other will be like before becoming fast friends. And of course, everyone has their own ideas about the eponymous Serpent and what it means.It’s also about our own perceptions. Many of the characters are initially set up as Victorian stereotypes, from the working-class Martha, who is educated and an ardent socialist, to Stella Ransome, set up as the beautiful and frail, not-long-for-this-world vicar’s wife, but who subverts our expectations.

The Essex Serpent is beautifully written and warmly funny book, with the most stunning and evocative descriptions of nature and landscape – which has made the prospect of a holiday in Essex oddly tempting. It’s a clever and enchanting story about people, how we function and interact with each other, and with the world around us.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is out now, published by (appropriately) Serpent’s Tail

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

A confession. Not having been alive at the time of the 1976 heatwave, part of me always sort of resents books about them. We had one in London around 10 years ago – my father had to stand next to the drain with a bucket when we were showering so there was water for the plants, and Ken Livingstone recommended we didn’t flush loos ‘unless necessary’. Ripe ground for fiction surely? But I digress. This resentment doesn’t stop me actually enjoying the books in question, it’s just a small insight into my personal follies. 


The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a book about mysteries, about how communities draw together, and the secrets our neighbours keep. When Mrs Creasey goes missing, ten year old Grace and her loyal friend Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands. Following advice from the vicar (sort of), they set out uncover as Brownies to ‘find God’ in their neighbours’ houses, on the logic that if they find Him, Mrs Creasey will return. Periodically, the perspective changes to that of the neighbours: Mrs Forbes, bullied by her sinister and controlling husband; Eric Lamb, still mourning the death of his wife; and Mr Creasey himself, who has withdrawn into obsessiveness following the disappearance of his wife. And it’s through them that we get to know Mrs Creasey. In addition, mysteries skip through the pages: a baby who was kidnapped many years ago, an unexplained fire, and suspicious meetings held at the British Legion. And Walter Bishop, one of the neighbours who keeps himself to himself, suspected by everyone of various misdemeanours, and shunned and persecuted accordingly. Is Walter Bishop one of the goats of the title, banished by the Lord for not looking after him? And who are the sheep? 

I found this a wonderful book to read, captivating, perceptive, funny, and with beautiful turns of phrase, such as that Mrs Morton is ‘rattling like a pebble in a life made for two.’ Grace is joy to read as a narrator – convincingly childlike, as she bosses Tilly around, and muddles through, and yet innocently wise as she observes the neighbours’ hypocrisies and absurdities. For instance, in the village hall following church, ‘No one mentioned Jesus. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked in, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Artic roll.’ A very special debut. 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is out now in paperback from Borough Press. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel. 


Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother. 

Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted. 

The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner. 

With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet.