Today’s guest blog is by Penny Hancock who is the author of the novel Tideline and the forthcoming novel The Darkening Hour which is due to be published on 29 August 2013.
The Darkening Hour opens in Deptford market with Mona, a carer dressed in a blue overall, taking her elderly charge for a walk to the river. The following morning a body washes up, its bloodied head wrapped in the very kind of overall worn by Mona, and Mona has disappeared.
The Darkening Hour is a psychological thriller that traces the relationship between Mona and her woman employer Dora. Dora is a successful radio presenter who places a lot of store by her own standing in the world, both at work and within her family. Both women are struggling to support elderly parents and a child, both women have absent lovers, yet rather than being drawn together by their similarities, misunderstandings gradually drive a wedge between them.
In my early notes for The Darkening Hour I still have a newspaper cutting headed ‘Woman kept as slave by London Doctor.’
This story fascinated and horrified me, not least because the doctor was a woman. Maybe erroneously I had associated people trafficking with men, and modern day slavery with prostitution and child labour. But the more I looked into this story, the more I uncovered further cases of migrant domestic workers exploited or abused by their female employers. I spoke to some of them, women who had left children or parents at home to earn money to pay for their education or healthcare. Some had ended up virtually or literally enslaved. Earlier this month there was another case of a wealthy woman who had confiscated her domestic workers passports so that they were incarcerated inside the house to work gruelling hours for almost no pay.
You might ask why domestic workers who find themselves in exploitative situations don’t just leave? But the UK has recently altered the migrant domestic worker visa so that they are tied to the family they come to work for; without their employers they become illegal. Given that they have often left desperate situations and accumulated debts in order to take on domestic work far from their own countries, going home is not an option either. This leaves them trapped in the family they arrived with and vulnerable if they are treated badly.
It strikes me as a particularly shameful indictment of modern day living that the law means such situations are allowed to develop.
But more intriguing to me in terms of the story, is what psychological forces underlie the abuse some women are guilty of perpetrating? Unlike people traffickers who are in it for the money, women who exploit domestic workers are usually already extremely wealthy -money is not a motivation. So what else would lead a woman to de-humanize the very person they have employed to help them? And what lengths might an abused woman go to, to free herself from such a situation?
In the Darkening Hour, I explore the steps I imagine an employer might be led down andthe misunderstandings that might drive her to abuse her position of power.
Dora, my fictional wealthy employer has fragile self-esteem. She has employed Mona to care for her father, who has dementia, and her unemployed son, in order to maintain her standing at work. But handing over the care of the two people she loves leads in its turn to jealousy. As Mona gains her father and son’s affections Dora feels threatened that her own status even within her family is being taken from her. And because her self esteem is so frail, it is easily punctured when her job is cut, and so she takes out her frustration and fears on the person she most easily can do; Mona.
Meanwhile, Mona herself is no angel. Having to leave her own mother and child in order to care for another woman’s father is clearly not a choice, is borne of necessity, so Mona resents her position at times. She crosses certain lines, taking what start out to be small measures to maintain her dignity, stubbornly refusing to admit to these when Dora questions her. She works hard, but has her sights set on a goal that is invisible to Dora- a secret that she is jealously guarding. Her silence, her steadfast work ethic also threatens Dora, and things slowly descend into conflict and misunderstanding.
Both women depend on each other, and yet neither wants to. And so the conflicts mount, as they are thrown together through outside pressures, and with one of them bound to snap at some point and, since the novel is a psychological thriller, and must fulfil the expectations of the genre, with of course, ultimately, that battered body in the river!
The story explores the themes of status both within the family and at work, visibility versus invisibility, and raises questions about what and who we value and why.
More information about Penny Hancock and her writing can be found on her website or on Facebook. You can also follow her on Twitter @pennyhancock