The Golden Rule has been described as ‘Strangers on a Train meets #MeToo. Can you tell us more?
This grew out of some of the darker material I found when researching The Lie of the Land (2017), a novel about a couple who move to the country because they can’t afford to divorce. Because that was a black comedy, I couldn’t use some of the shocking stuff that my friends and interviewees told me about their experiences of infidelity and coercive control, but one thing in particular struck me: the women all said how much easier it would be to be a widow. The third time I heard this, I thought, So why don’t more wives kill their husbands? From that to a female-led Strangers on a Train plot – the perfect murder alibi – was an obvious step. But then, because the train I knew best was the one going from Paddington to Penzance, and because I have become deeply concerned about the gulf between the capital and the countryside, it went on growing. So The Golden Rule is about much more than its plot. It’s about cruelty and manipulation, but also kindness and courage and love: the title comes from the universal moral injunction to treat others as you would be treated yourself.
My heroine, Hannah, through whom the story is seen and felt, is someone who has every incentive to commit this most terrible of crimes. She’s tried to escape a poor background through university education, and then marriage to someone who is rich and entitled – literally so in that he’s from an aristocratic family. But she’s still left in a dreadful situation as a single mother who has been dumped and betrayed. Is she going to take that step, or isn’t she? Whatever she decides will lead to danger for herself and her daughter.
You have been called a State of the Nation novelist. Why did you set The Golden Rule in Cornwall?
I’m not interested in writing about politics, but I am very interested in how what has happened politically affects ordinary people. I’m quite amused to be given the State of the Nation label – not least because the other writers who do this are all men like Jonathan Coe and John Lanchester – and for a long time critics completely missed that you can write about the supposedly female worlds of domestic life and motherhood while also dramatizing or satirising what is happening to the nation more generally.
Cornwall interested me because I now live partly in Devon, but close to the Cornish border, and Cornwall voted overwhelmingly for Brexit – despite being one of the poorest places in Europe, and very dependent on EU money. It’s a place of enormous natural beauty, many of whose inhabitants are priced out of housing and have jobs for only half the year due to tourism. So I wanted to intertwine that predicament with that of Hannah’s life, and with the strong feeling many Cornish people have of not being part of the rest of Britain. Cornwall is a very distinct place, frequently sentimentalised and romanticised in fiction and popular TV series like Poldark, but the reality is stark.
What I’m eternally interested in is the clash between the Haves and Have-Nots. That’s what stimulates my imagination and sympathies, and I don’t just mean in terms of rich and poor but in characters having choices and confidence.
You use the idea of Cinderella quite a lot – Hannah for instance writes her university thesis on Jane Austen’s Cinderellas. What gave you that idea, and how important is it?
I was drawing partly on what I’ve observed happening to my own children’s Millennial generation who have had to take out huge loans in tuition fees only to find themselves working in low-paid gig economy jobs on graduation, and whose chances of ever owning a home seem more distant than ever after Covid-19. Cinderella is a universal fairy-tale for every young person down the ages who feels unjustly treated, but in this case, it is justified.
The fairy-tale is also important because of the role that appearances play in the novel. When Hannah meets Jinni on the London to Penzance train, one of the things that draws her into the Strangers on a Train type murder plot is that Jinni’s clothes are so beautiful. Even before they begun talking, she wonders what it would be like to have that life, the life of a woman who is as rich as Hannah is poor. Jinni is very deliberately dressed in green, the colour of enchantment and seduction – I was thinking of the Witch in CS Lewis’s fifth Narnia book, The Silver Chair. Hannah, by contrast, is practically dressed in rags – she’s working as a domestic cleaner after leaving her job in an advertising agency. She has just one dress, an old sprigged cotton Laura Ashley that her sneering ex tells her “makes you look like a milkmaid waiting to be fucked.” She has no confidence until she is loaned a beautiful vintage Dior dress for a party that gains her the Cinderella-like transformation scene – though it all goes horribly wrong as the murder plot closes its jaws.
I haven’t particularly written about clothes in my novels before, because they tend to be something that has become the preserve of writers of commercial fiction. However, I think it’s a pity the contemporary literary novelists overlook clothes, because these can tell you so much about a character’s psychology. They’re certainly important to me – in fact, my favourite scarf, which just happens to be the one in my author photograph for The Golden Rule – is by Toast!
There’s also an element of Beauty and the Beast, isn’t there?
Yes, there is. Hannah’s plan to murder Jinni’s husband doesn’t go quite as expected. Without wanting to give away my plot, I became very interested in the idea of a man who might be a monster or might be the opposite to this. So much of love is about trust. We all fall in love with an imaginary person, and then have to learn about the real person. Often, that’s a huge disappointment – but what if it’s not? People can tell dreadful lies about each other, and fiction, as a giant lie that tries to tell the truth, is particularly interested in these.
This is your ninth novel, and they are all interconnected. Does that mean people have to read all your books to understand this one?
No, not at all. Each novel can be read as a stand-alone, but it may deepen readers’ enjoyment to meet characters again and find out more about them. So, some minor characters become major ones, and vice versa. For instance, Hannah’s student neighbour in the ex-council block, Xan, is a main character in my previous novel The Lie of the Land, and Ivo Sponge who hosts the smart Cornish dinner party is a main character in A Vicious Circle and other books. Hannah herself first appeared in my second novel A Private Place as a small child, but now she’s almost thirty.
What I like doing is what Trollope did, which is to create a contemporary world that can be funny, harsh, horrifying and hopeful, in which the bad are punished and the good gain the possibility of being happy. I don’t believe in reading or writing fiction that makes you feel worse at the end than you did when you began it………………………………..