Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Women Behaving Badly in Good as Gone

Maybe it’s my guilty conscience, but I have never had a hard time identifying with badly behaved women in books. As a child reading Little Women, I rallied behind hot-tempered Jo and spoiled Amy, flipping impatiently through the chapters about sickly-sweet Beth; as an adult reader, I rooted for wicked Madame Merle over Isabel Archer, Becky Sharp over the insipid Amelia. I still remember the thrill of the moment in Gone Girl when Amazing Amy flipped, by narrative sleight-of-hand, from victim to villain. Some of these women I find sympathetic, others truly despicable, but they all resonate with a truth I’ve felt since childhood: not all women were born to fit into the self-sacrificing domestic roles society prescribes. Perhaps no woman really is.

My first novel, Good as Gone, alternates between two women who are having trouble playing the roles required of them in one of the most fraught relationships there is: mother and daughter. Anna is a college professor so mired in guilt and rage over the kidnapping of her 13-year-old daughter Julie that she has neglected her relationships with her husband and younger daughter Jane; the role of mother has caused her so much pain that she has all but abdicated it entirely. When Julie shows up again eight years later, malnourished and barely recognisable, Anna’s ambivalence about motherhood is harder to banish than it should be; she finds herself doubting Julie’s account of where she’s been for the past eight years, and eventually even her identity. As alternating chapters delve into Julie’s past, we begin to see just how justified those doubts are—and how hard it is for the woman who calls herself Julie to play the role of Anna’s daughter.

When I set out to write about Anna and Julie, I didn’t know I was writing a domestic thriller, but the genre soon drew me in. Domestic thrillers cast doubt, not just on individual women’s roles, but on the fantasy that if women just played their roles correctly, everything would be okay, and home would be a safe and pleasant refuge from the big, scary world. Instead, domestic thrillers paint the traditional woman’s domain of the family household as dark, full of secrets, and potentially threatening. This is not a stretch for women; in reality, female murder victims are overwhelmingly killed by their husbands and lovers, so a genre whose central thesis is that the most intimate relationships are the most dangerous doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched.

After all, who really feels that they know, or are known perfectly by, their family? Intimacy can obscure far more than it reveals about a person. Most parents have trouble seeing their children as adults, and most children prefer to think their parents had no life before they existed. In reality, these fictions and projections can feel either comforting or restrictive—but in domestic thrillers, they also function as the perfect disguise for a more complex set of motives.

Of course, in Good as Gone, it is Julie’s identity that is in question, but as I wrote, I was just as interested in Anna’s identity as a mother. Is Anna a monster for being unable to embrace her long-lost daughter—even with good reason—or for distancing herself from her younger daughter Jane in order to protect herself? Is she a monster for hiding her suspicions from her husband instead of sharing them? I certainly don’t think so, but I’m always fascinated by readers who despise her for these traits. Just as Julie (or not-Julie, as the case may be) makes a series of ruthless decisions in order to survive a harsh world, I see Anna as having made her own ruthless decisions in order to survive a home that has been revealed as a dark and dangerous place. As Anna says near the book’s opening, “the worst has already happened”; having once seen through the veil to the other side, Anna can’t make herself believe in the domestic fantasy anymore.

Is Anna a terrible mother, or a rational woman surviving a terrible world? Is Julie a heartless imposter, or a traumatised young woman who does what she must to survive? Domestic thrillers allow us to pose these questions in the most extreme ways. At their best, they show the false opposition between badly and well-behaved women, revealing the complicated humans beneath the roles. I’ve always struggled with that opposition within myself; now, about two-thirds of the way through my first pregnancy, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I’ll make, whether I’ll make the grade. Badly behaved? Well behaved? Probably just human.

Amy Gentry’s Good as Gone is out now (HQ, £7.99)

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