Friday, 27 May 2022

Second Wife Syndrome by Julia Crouch

Like most (all?) crime writers, I love Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. 

When Du Maurier was working on the novel, she told her publisher Victor Gollancz that it was ‘a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower ...Psychological and rather macabre’. While I am in no way claiming parity with one of the great classics of twentieth century fiction, Rebecca was, in no small way, one of the inspirations for my new novel, The Daughters.

I love Rebecca’s nameless flawed narrator: the young second wife, an ingenue, who has no idea what she is getting herself into, the house of monsters she is entering. The pressure she feels to fill Rebecca’s perfect shoes and her lack of insight into her own role for Maxim are at once infuriating and heartbreaking. She is, as Olivia Laing says in her Guardian article, Sex, jealousy and gender: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca 80 years on, ‘raw as an egg’. 

In The Daughters, I take the young second wife out of Mandalay, place her in a contemporary Muswell Hill eco-house and give her a modern, feminist twist. My Carys, therefore, is a professional woman who has got where she is by hard work, not birth or chance. She is mixed-race, northern and working class and when she meets her much older future husband Bill she is starting out in a profession (architecture) where finding anyone with just one of those attributes is a rarity, let alone all three combined into one person. She is also living with a woman at this point, so her decision to have a relationship with Bill is a very active choice on her part. 

Indeed, where the second Mrs de Winter’s passivity is one of her driving forces, Carys is all about action. She cares. She works hard to help her younger stepdaughter Lucy through the trauma that still reverberates after her mother Alice’s supposed suicide twelve years earlier. 

So far, so likeable and perfect for Carys.

But there are Alice’s shoes to fill, both literally – Carys wears Alice’s dog-walking boots to walk Alice’s dog – and metaphorically. Like the first Mrs de Winter, Alice was on the surface a class act. A pioneering GP who set up a revolutionary health centre in Hackney combining NHS and complementary therapies for the local low-income families, she was also an accomplished artist and keen botanist. on top of all this, she was also a loving and caring mother to her daughters, Lucy and the older Sara (there was a lost baby boy in between the girls). Everybody loved Alice. She is a tough act to follow.

To make things even harder for Carys, I also watch her through Sara’s eyes. Sara is – if you squint and give me a long piece of rope – the Mrs Danvers of the plot. She is just a couple of years younger than her stepmother, which is an potentially incendiary situation in itself. But, when, at the beginning of the novel, we learn that Sara has discovered there are questions about Alice’s supposed suicide, that the coffin she and her little sister wept over at the funeral was in fact empty, the existing cracks in the relationship between Carys and Sara expand into ravines. 

So what did happen to Alice? 

And what, Sara wonders, was the sequence of events leading up to Carys and Bill getting together? She has always thought that her stepmother moved into the family home with unseemly haste after Alice’s death. But now she smells a big stinking rat about everything that happened back then.

Is Carys the perfect being she presents to the world?

While the questions about the circumstances around Alice’s and Rebecca’s deaths are raised at different narrative points, the idea that both of the dead first wives may have been too good to be true is at the heart of each novel. Also, both the second Mrs de Winter and Carys are seen by members of their new households as arrivistes – the first because of her utter lack of sophistication, the second because of her colour, class and accent. Indeed, Carys meets Bill when she is on student placement at the celebrated architecture practice he runs. Both women marry in and marry up. 

I can’t say any more, because – and this is one of the great drawbacks of discussing crime fiction – that would involve spoilers. But I hope that you will go some way to enjoying The Daughters just as much as I do Rebecca, and that you will find the ending just as unexpected and twisting.

The Daughters by Julia Crouch (Bookouture) Out Now

My father said my mother killed herself. My sister says he’s lying. The day of our mother’s funeral, my little sister Lucy and I clung to our father’s side. He promised he’d get us through it, and we believed him. But then I discovered that the coffin we wept over was empty. Dad says he was trying to protect us – that he thought it would be easier to grieve if we didn’t know our mother’s body was never found. His new wife says she just wants to help us move on from the past. Then Lucy has a flash of memory that leaves her shaking. Our father. A woman she doesn’t recognise. A knife… She insists she knows something about the day our mother died, but it’s buried too deep to see clearly. What happened to our mother? I need to find the truth. But I have no idea who I can trust. And what if the answer puts my life in danger?

More information about Julia Crouch and her work can be found on her website. You can also find her on Twitter @thatjuliacrouch and on Instagram @juliageek. She can also be found on Facebook.

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