Our new dark and twisted literary heroines

By Kim Knight

Our new literary heroines are dark, twisted — and a little closer to home. Kim Knight talks domestic noir with Paula Hawkins, ahead of the British author’s Auckland visit.
Writer Paula Hawkins. Photo / Getty Images
Writer Paula Hawkins. Photo / Getty Images

Home is where the tea bags are. Where you remember exactly which dinner party led to exactly what red wine stain on the carpet; where you know, without thinking, how to turn the dodgy shower dial for optimum hot water and that the back door will stick every time it rains.

It is piles of domesticity. Unfolded towels, school notices stuck to the fridge and chicken breasts defrosting on the bench. Home is warm, familiar and safe - until it isn't.

In New Zealand, about half of all homicide victims are related to their killer. One in three women will experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime. Every five minutes, police will attend a domestic abuse incident.

Home is where the hurt is. And nobody is mining that territory more terrifyingly than the authors of the new, uber-selling crime genre: domestic noir.

Writer Julia Crouch first mooted the term in 2013. She was looking for a descriptor beyond "psychological thriller" for her own books when she sounded out readers on her blog, writing: "In a nutshell, Domestic Noir takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants."

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is a domestic noir classic - and the 25th best-selling adult fiction title of all time. Others writing in the genre include Rebecca Whitney, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Clare Mackintosh and Paula Hawkins, the former journalist who had to borrow money from her dad while she bashed out enough of The Girl On The Train to pitch to a publisher.

Between them, they have pushed Bridget Jones under the bus and replaced the ditzy chick-lit trope of the last decade with a murderously flawed femme du jour. The new stars of commercial fiction are unpleasant, unlikeable women who hate and lie and cheat. If sales figures are any indication, we can't get enough of them.

What's the appeal? One school of thought says domestic noir is an antidote to the filtered and sanitised versions of family presented via Facebook and Instagram.

"I think that's probably absolutely true," says Hawkins, 43. "We've always had that tendency to present a certain face to the world, but we didn't have the means to do it quite as efficiently as we do now.

"These books allow you to reveal what we all know to be absolutely true. That underneath, there's all sorts of turbulence and difficulty going on. There's something quite refreshing about the realness."

It's 8am in Brixton, London, when Hawkins speaks to Canvas. A teaspoon dings against her teacup and she sniffs frequently, like she's got a cold.

She says the domestic noir label might be useful for marketers, media and the reading public. "But I'm not sure it goes a lot further than that from the writer's perspective. I don't think many people sit down and think 'aha, I will now write a domestic noir book'. That's not how I thought about it. I had a story and it happens to fit nicely on to that shelf, but it's not the way I approached the writing of it."

Rear Window meets Gone Girl, says the publicity blurb for Hawkins' book. Briefly, and with no spoilers, it's about a woman who catches the same train every morning, imaging the perfect life of the perfect couple she glimpses daily from her commuter seat. One day, she sees something shocking. One day, she has a chance to become part of the lives she's only watched from afar.

The Girl On The Train has sold almost 12,000 copies here (almost 500,000 have been printed in the United States). According to Nielsen BookScan data it has made 43 appearances in this country's Top 10 International Fiction Bestseller list (Gone Girl, published in 2012, has appeared 42 times) and has racked up total earnings of $401,462.

"It's done spectacularly well, better than anyone could have ever hoped, certainly a hell of a lot better than I ever hoped," says Hawkins, ahead of her first visit to New Zealand, where she will make two appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival.

She's ambivalent about the genre's "feminist" tag.

"They are concerned with the lives of women, and women's particular concerns, and they treat them in a serious way ... you'll find a lot of strong women in these books, and you'll find some weak ones too. I always find this really difficult, but, yes, I believe this is a feminist genre. I believe there are a lot of feminists writing in it, in any case."

We're attracted to people who are difficult or complicated because they just feel real to us. They feel much more real.
Paula Hawkins

But that's not the main attraction of domestic noir. The way Hawkins tells it, we like this fiction because it could so easily be fact. They are about our marriages that haven't worked, our children we don't like and our friends who are not telling the truth. They are not about spies or serial killers. They are about lives gone awry in very ordinary kitchens and bedrooms. What makes the domestic setting so potent?

"Home is a place that is supposed to be safe. A refuge. So that's peculiarly terrifying," says Hawkins. "Sadly, particularly for women and children, it's actually the place you're most likely to suffer harm, statistically speaking. That's where bad things happen to people. So I see it as quite a realist way of writing about crime.

"That idea you can't trust the people you're closest to is uniquely terrifying. Hopefully 90 per cent of us will never have to come to that realisation, but I think everyone can feel that little tingle at the back of the neck - 'God, wouldn't it be awful ... '"

And there is, says Hawkins, "a very specific sort of cruelty you exact on people who are very close ... You can exploit every weakness, and put your fingers right on that point you know is going to hurt the most."

Read the news, says Hawkins and there's always a previously happy couple unravelling in public.

"The interesting thing is unpicking that. What on earth could have happened to them that they end up with things going quite as wrong as they do?

"There's nothing nastier than a romantic relationship gone bad. Those are the relationships in which we do the most terrible things to each other, and say the most hurtful things."

If Hawkins is drawing on personal experience, she's not saying.

"I know people, I've read things, and you hear little stories along the way. And I have got a very overactive imagination!"

What she will own up to - completely and utterly - is the voyeurism pivotal to her novel's plot.

"It's that thing I've always loved doing - looking in people's houses. It's incredibly evocative. I think how you feel when you look into a lit window and see someone at home is so coloured by how you are in yourself at the time.

"It can make you happy, and make you feel comforted because you're heading to the same place. Or if you're lonely, and you know you're going home to a cold house, and you know nobody else is there - it can be an incredibly poignant and painful thing to do."

"I'm constantly looking at people's houses thinking 'what would I be like if I lived there? How great would my life be if I lived in that house? I'd be so happy'."

She is, in fact, happy right now. She's about to move out of the home she's been sharing with a "very ex" ex, because now she can afford to buy a "very nice" flat. She has travelled the world on the success of the book (currently being turned into a movie in the United States, starring Emily Blunt) and her newest novel - about two sisters and unreliable memory - is underway.

Hawkins was freelancing as a financial journalist with four average "women's fiction" (she won't use the term "chick lit") books behind her, when the idea for The Girl On The Train began idling in the back of her brain.

She never knew where to take it - though, she insists, she was always clear what she would call it. Yes, she admits, the public is probably tiring of books with "girl" in the title (she, personally, is tired of books with pictures of moths in jars on the cover), but: "I talk about women as girls all the time, I refer to my friends as girls, I refer to myself that way sometimes. So it's a lazy thing. Now, I think probably, it's also a huge marketing thing.

"I don't know. You wouldn't use 'boy' in a title, unless you were talking about a child. It is a strange one ... "

People remark on it, "a lot" she says, bristling slightly. "I don't recall anyone complaining about Stieg Larsson - the girl with the dragon tattoo is not a child either."

Girls. Women. Call them what you like, the critics are united in their appraisal of the female protagonists in Hawkins' book (the story is told from three separate perspectives). None of them is very nice. Rachel, for example, is a barely functional alcoholic. Megan is unhappy. Anna is insufferably smug. To Hawkins, they are, simply, interesting.

"It's almost become a trope now," says Hawkins. "The flawed female protagonist. I'm not sure whether she's especially new, or whether it's just something we're talking about a lot ... I think flawed characters in general are just simply more interesting. We're attracted to people who are difficult or complicated because they just feel real to us. They feel much more real."

Five other domestic noir novels worth reading

by Julia Crouch
(Headline $28)

Most of us churn out something to hide in the bottom drawer during National Novel Writing Month. Former theatre director Julia Crouch, credited with coining the term domestic noir, drafted her 2011 debut, Cuckoo, landing a book deal. It's the gripping story of a dysfunctional friendship. When widowed Polly comes to stay with happily married mum of two Rose, Rose's "perfect" life unravels.

If you like this you may enjoy her latest, The Long Fall.

by Renee Knight
(Doubleday $36.99)

It doesn't take long for Catherine Ravenscroft to realise the novel she has picked up from her bedside table is about her.

Her life unravels as it becomes increasingly interwoven with that of the person making sure the book's contents become widely known. A gripping debut from a former BBC documentary director, it's no surprise film rights have sold to Hollywood.

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty
(Faber & Faber $25)

Ever seen a stranger you fancy? Who hasn't? But middle-aged, married geneticist Yvonne Carmichael gives in to that desire with unimaginable consequences. The story of this affair and its aftermath - a story about bad choices, and we've all made those - is narrated by Yvonne from the dock in this sexually charged thriller. Much more than a standard courtroom drama.

The Liar's Chair
by Rebecca Whitney
(Mantle $35)

Here's another woman who apparently has it all, husband, house, business - note the consistent theme. But Rachel is a secret drinker and, when she kills a man in a hit-and-run, controlling husband David insists they carry on as normal. Then, when David tries to thwart Rachel's efforts to confront her past, the cracks in their marriage widen dangerously.

by Jill Alexander Essbaum
(Mantle $35)

Married, three children, husband, home in picture postcard Zurich ...

Sound familiar? Here's another woman whose internal life is a far cry from her seemingly comfortable life. Bored banker's wife Anna embarks on a series of affairs but becomes trapped by her own poor decisions (another domestic noir trademark) and finds she's reached the point of no return.

Paula Hawkins is at the Auckland Writers Festival, Friday, May 13. 1pm, Crime Stories (free); 4pm, One Hour In Conversation ($20 earlybird tickets via Ticketmaster). For full programme see writersfestival.co.nz.

- Canvas

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