Bernie Ingram is forty-nine, menopausal, lonely. Married since the age of eighteen, with no close friends and few family ties, she feels as if the past thirty years of her life have been sacrificed to others: to her husband, Martin, who still carries a torch for a one-night stand at University; to her son, Dante, whose affection seems largely directed towards his maternal grandmother; to her boss, Salena, who runs a struggling bookshop in London’s East Finchley. Bernie’s own ambitions and dreams have been forgotten by everyone – including Bernie herself, who feels herself growing less visible, less surprising, less lovable, with every passing day. Until the murder of a woman in a local park unlocks a series of childhood memories, and with them, a power that she has suppressed for all her adult life.
When a woman finally breaks, watch out for the pieces…
As I was writing A NARROW DOOR, I thought a lot about women’s power, and especially that of the middle-aged woman. I realized that in traditional tales, young women tend to predominate. Their power is often in their beauty, their youth – and most especially, their desirability to men. Older women often tend to be antagonists – cruel stepmothers, witches, jealous bosses, powered by envy and rage for the fact that their youth and beauty is waning. I asked myself where are the stories of women in control of their power? And through that I started to think about what a woman’s power means, and how to build it into a story.
Some of you will already know that I’m a big fan of Stephen King. I discovered his short novel, CARRIE, when I was in my late teens, and was fascinated by his depiction of the misfit at high school, and of the destructive potential of teenage hormones out of control. Revisiting it later, I began to ask myself this: What if Carrie White had lived? What if her powers had emerged, not with puberty, but with menopause?
That was how this book began. Against the background of the #MeToo movement; the murder of Sarah Everard; the uncertainty of Covid; the loneliness of online relationships and some of my own physical and mental changes. Bernie Ingram isn’t me: and yet, I can identify with her. I put her story together as a kind of homage to CARRIE, but a Carrie with thirty years of life and experience to guide her; a Carrie who has already survived being a misfit at high school; a Carrie with a second chance at making a difference to the world, and whose powers, though potentially as dangerous as Carrie White’s, have since evolved into something more. It turned into this; a story of growth, and redemption, and revenge, and visibility, and friendship, and self-discovery. Add to that rather a lot of feminism, too: in a world in crisis, a world in which women’s rights have shrunk, rather than continued to grow, this is a book about women and their attitudes to men; the men they love, and hate, and fear. And it’s a story of what happens when a woman’s anger, hoarded for years, is finally given its chance to escape.
Q & A:
Q: I’m an abuse survivor. Will I be triggered?
A: I don’t know. There is abuse in this book, and violence against women, and implied rape, but none of it is graphic, and I hope none of it is expressed in a way that allocates blame to the victim, or glorifies the perpetrator. But it is a tough book in parts, and you should be aware of that.
Q: I’m a man. Will this make me uncomfortable?
A: If it does, maybe it’s doing what I meant it to. There are certainly some unpleasant male characters in the book, and Bernie herself has a complicated relationship with the men in her life. But there’s no suggestion here that all men are abusers, or that men in general are bad; simply that society is constructed in a way that lets bad men get away with things. But a story should make the reader ask questions. And this story should raise questions about gender, and how we relate to it. If this book makes you feel uncomfortable, the question might be: where is the discomfort coming from, and why?
Q: So, I’m confused. Is this a horror novel?
A: Certainly not in the way that CARRIE is a horror novel. Bernie sometimes horrifies herself, but she isn’t a monster. Her powers take a very different form to those exhibited by Carrie White. Plus, I’ve deliberately sidestepped some of the elements of Stephen King’s story – the monstering of the protagonist, the monstrous mother, the graphic portrayal of abuse, the portrayal of the other women and girls as being almost universally cruel and hostile – that made that voice a man’s voice, rather than a woman’s. And I’ve tried to keep some ambiguity – which King does not – as to whether or not Bernie’s superpowers even exist at all, or whether they are simply in her mind, and in the minds of those she has touched. So no: not a horror novel as we usually encounter them – unless we work on the assumption that to live under a patriarchy is already horrific enough….
Q: What does the title mean?
A lot of this book is about feeling broken, or being broken (which is what a lot of women going through menopause feel). But it’s also about light, and the double-edged power of light, which allows us to see, whilst also in this case revealing things that maybe should have stayed in darkness. Light is tremendously powerful, and yet it can be broken. However, not everything that is broken is worthless. After all, only by breaking light do we get the rainbow.
Q: You write this book in two voices. Why?
A: I like writing in the first person. It allows me to explore all kinds of things I can’t explore in any other way – memories, misdirection, the stream-of-conscious movements of my protagonist’s mind – as well as playing with the idea of persona, the subconscious and the different faces of truth. Most of the book is written in Bernie’s voice, but there are short sections in Kate’s voice that allow me to show Bernie from another person’s point of view, and to play with the theme of perspectives. Bothe voices are quite similar, in spite of them being from very different personalities: but yes, there’s a reason for that.
Q: What exactly are Bernie’s superpowers?
A: Well, whether she has any powers at all is very much in question, but basically I’ve hinted that she might have the power to project herself into the minds of others, or to sense, and even manipulate their thoughts. But I also wanted to keep a measure of ambiguity, too; to hint that all this might just exist in Bernie’s imagination.
Q: So a kind of super-empathy, right?
A: Not quite. I have tried to play with (and subvert) the common idea that women are more empathic than men. I don’t know whether or not there’s any truth in that, but within a patriarchy, women are certainly expected to be that way. Bernie has been brought up to believe that understanding and nurturing men is her principal role in life: the emergence of her powers teaches her that she also has a responsibility to herself, a responsibility that extends to all women.
Q: Why did you give Bernie hot flashes, instead of hot flushes?
It was a deliberate choice: partly because I prefer flashes phonetically, but mostly I wanted to stress the fact that this isn’t just a physical experience; it’s also a psychic experience – a flash of intuition. Flashes are internalized, fiery, intuitive: flushes are an external symptom of menopausal unease.
Q: You always use a different scent to mark the writing of your novels. Which was it this time?
A: Lumière Noire, by Francis Kurkdjian. It’s quite a dry, unusual patchouli-rose combination with cumin, cardamom and narcissus. (I’m using the men’s version of it because I like it slightly better, but in any case I don’t believe fragrances have gender.)
I wrote something about my own experience of invisibility, menopause, and the powerlessness of powering through. Read it here.
I wrote about the three ways in which women can be invisible.
And I wrote about women’s rage, and why it’s a superpower.
Want to study the book as part of a reading group? Here’s my handy reading group guide here.
Oh, and one last thing.
Pre-orders are incredibly important to authors when it comes to dealing with publishers. They can make the difference between a book that gets stocked everywhere, and one that’s difficult to find. They help drive publicity budgets, and decide whether authors go on book tours. They can even determine whether a series gets to continue, or gets terminated.
So if you’d like to pre-order BROKEN LIGHT, you can do it here…