Sunday 16 June 2024

Joanna Dodd on The Long Shadows cast by Old Sins

Long before I started writing my debut psychological thriller The Summer Dare, I was fascinated by the tricks memory can play on us and by what goes through the heads of people who commit a crime a long time ago and think, for decades sometimes, that they’ve got away with it. What story do they tell other people about what happened? Even more interestingly, what story do they tell themselves and, over time, do they actually start to believe that story? 

For me, these questions become even more acute when the person who’s done something wrong is a child at the time. When I was at school, I used to have a recurring nightmare where I’d wake up convinced I’d caused someone’s death. For a few fuzzy-headed moments it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again, and then reality would take over and I’d realise that what I had in fact done was tape over my dad’s recording of the rugby before he’d had a chance to watch it. Such a relief! 

But supposing you were a child and you woke up with that feeling and it was true. Maybe you didn’t mean to do whatever it was, but you can’t be sure that people will believe that, so you make up a story about what happened, and you tell it to other people, and you try to tell it to yourself too. And gradually over the years, the lines between what actually happened and what you tell yourself happened become blurred. 

After all, memory is notoriously unreliable. Many works of fiction explore this concept brilliantly. One of my favourites is Iain Pears’s incomparable An Instance of the Fingerpost, which tells the same story of a murder in 17th century Oxford from four different points of view—all of them unreliable narrators. 

In real life, we’ve all been in a situation where friends or family tell a version of the past that doesn’t accord with our own. We’re all our own unreliable narrators. I’ve definitely been mid-argument with my brother, and longed to be able to rewind and play a perfectly accurate version of whatever we’re bickering about. But the point is I can’t; no one ever can. Mostly the differences in our memories are trivial, and you could argue that when the stakes are high, because some kind of terrible incident has occurred, people might hold onto a more accurate version of events. But I think the opposite could sometimes be true: when the stakes are high, everyone has an interest in creating their own version of the past and they might not even know they’ve done it. There’s a reason why so many of the great works of fiction exploring the unreliability of memory centre around crime.

And if you were a child who did a terrible thing, when justice finally caught up with you, could you conceivably argue that you were a different person now—an adult? Are you always culpable for the sins of your younger self, or does it depend what, and how serious, those sins are? If we’re talking about criminal acts, the legal position is clear. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the age of criminal responsibility is 10, and in Scotland it’s 12. As a society, we recognise that children are less morally culpable than adults, and a different sentencing regime applies, but it’s not uncommon for people to be sentenced when they are adults for crimes they committed as children, and the courts have grappled with how best to handle these cases. And behaviour doesn’t have to be criminal to have life-altering implications. 

For The Summer Dare I had the idea of a group of old school friends, who are now adults and are bound together by something that happened to them 25 years ago that they can no longer even talk about. At the time, they tell the grown-ups around them a version of what happened and their decision to withhold the truth has awful consequences. But as adults themselves, they all have slightly different memories of the long-ago summer night that changed all their lives for ever, and somewhere between the gaps in these multiple versions is the truth.

The Summer Dare involves three different timelines: the present, when my characters’ lives are starting to unravel in frightening ways; 1999, when they were school friends and took part in a dare that changed all their lives for ever; and the 1920s, when a legendary star of the silent screen is accused of murder after a glitzy showbiz party. All three strands explore the tricks memory plays and the difficulty of definitively establishing what happened many years earlier. 

The Summer Dare by Joanna Dodd (Hera Books) Out now

Six weeks of friendship. A lifetime paying for it. They were the cool girls. Two years older, oozing glamour. She could prove herself worthy of their friendship. She could do the dare. Twenty-five years later, Lucy has a perfect life. She is still friends with the cool girls. All except one. Maddie. The one they never saw again after the dare. They don't talk about her. They don’t think about her. It is as though she never existed until… Lucy gets a text from an unknown number. Why didn't you tell them where I was? The past hurtles into the present and secrets push their way to the surface. Who is the message from? Is Maddie back? Or is someone else set on exposing the truth and seeking revenge?

Find out more about Joanna on her website You can also find her on X @jkdwriter

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