Richard and Judy ask Sarah Hilary

Richard and Judy ask Sarah Hilary

This book bravely challenges all the received wisdom about domestic abuse. Did you worry about how your readers would react?

I didn’t, but only because it didn’t occur to me that anyone would react negatively to what I was trying to do. After all, I’m not suggesting that the received wisdom is wrong. Many of the characters in the book have fallen prey to the hard realities underpinning that wisdom. But I did set out to challenge the way in which we, as a society, think and talk about domestic abuse. When a subject is disturbing, we try to avoid it. Often what happens is that we tell ourselves, ‘Oh yes, we know about that. We know it happens, we’ve read about it, we’re familiar with the facts,’ and we become complacent because the alternative means constantly updating our knowledge, seeking out stories which make us uncomfortable. I think it’s part of a writer’s job to challenge complacency, in whatever shape it takes. As a reader of crime fiction, I like to be made to feel uncomfortable about the terrible things we’re capable of as human beings. And to be reminded of the great things we’re capable of, too. You can’t have the one without the other. I suppose in a way I was trying to refresh our collective memory about subjects that have become commonplace. Domestic abuse shouldn’t be allowed to be commonplace. Everyone should challenge it. I’ve been lucky in that readers and reviewers do seem to have understood what I was trying to achieve in that regard.

Did you do a lot of research, especially in women’s refuges?

I read a lot of first person accounts and I checked my facts carefully. But I’m one of those writers who could be eaten alive by research and die happy. I had to stop reading, and start writing. I was trying to tell a story and while it absolutely needed the ring of authenticity, it was always going to be a work of fiction. And once I started writing, the characters took over; it became their story. My only regret is that I didn’t visit a women’s refuge, but I hope I can do so in the future.

Have you reached any conclusions yourself about the nature of violence between men and women?

As a writer, I’m wary of reaching conclusions, especially about people. The idea that I might have to stop asking questions, or stop being surprised, fills me with dread. Perhaps I’m afraid I’ll slip into that complacency I mentioned earlier on. I do think that violence of this kind has less to do with gender than the statistics might lead us to suspect. It’s about power, and control. To that extent, anyone can be a victim or a perpetrator, regardless of gender, age, size or anything else.

Why is Marnie so forgiving towards Stephen, who so brutally murdered her parents?

I’m not sure that she is forgiving towards him, exactly. I know she wants answers from him, and she knows she won’t get these unless she forms some sort of rapport with him. Above everything, she wants to make sense of the terrible thing he did. I don’t think she can make her peace with the loss of her parents until she’s made sense of why they died. Added to which, she feels guilty because she didn’t love them enough when they were alive, and she didn’t spot their murderer when he was under her nose. That hurts her professionally as well as emotionally. Then there’s the fact of the promise she made to her parents, that she would look after Stephen when they no longer could. I think she feels the weight of that promise more keenly than she realises. A part of her feels sorry for Stephen because he was a child growing up in a house where she was unhappy, a house she ran from as soon as she could. Her feelings for Stephen are incredibly complex. I don’t think she’s going to make sense of those feelings for a long time yet.