Orfeia, a mother’s grief, and the dark side of fairytale.

When my daughter was eight years old, I began to write a crime novel about the death of a child. Nine pages in, I abandoned it. The thought of losing a child like that, even in fiction, was so viscerally upsetting to me that I ditched the idea permanently. Or so I thought.

Twenty years later, I wrote Orfeia, the story of a woman, Fay, who loses her adult daughter Daisy through suicide, and of her journey through the different levels of London, through Faërie, and finally to the Land of Death, where she must face the Hallowe’en King, and enter a battle of wits with him for her daughter’s return. It is a battle she cannot win, as she is losing her memory; and yet I like to think that victory, like love, is in the eye of the beholder.

Why I decided to write this story then, and in that fairytale genre, I didn’t ask myself at first, except that it seemed right, somehow, and because somehow the story wanted – needed – to be told.

In some ways Orfeia closely follows The Strawberry Thief, in which Vianne Rocher has to come to terms with her beloved Anouk growing up, getting married and moving away. At the time of writing it, my own daughter was embarking on the same journey, and it was inevitable that some of my own experience would make it into my fiction. I know it isn’t the same sort of loss, but for a parent, there is a kind of bereavement when a child leaves home, along with a sense of questioning their purpose and direction, now that the child’s upbringing is no longer at the centre of their life. But Fay’s real story comes from elsewhere, and has taken me a long time to process.

We often find in fairy tales accounts of people who die of grief. But I saw it happen first-hand, and it was anything but fantasy. My great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, had been living as a cleaner in Paris. Her only son, whom she adored, but with whom she was estranged, had been living abroad for years. From time to time she would hear news of him and his family, but he never wrote to her. She had a single – very old – photograph of him with his wife and their daughter, which she always proudly showed me when I came to visit.

One day a friend, assuming that she already knew, made a casual reference to her son’s suicide. My great-aunt found out in this dreadful way that her son had died some years before. The shock of the news sent her into a sudden, dramatic decline. The tough Parisian resilience that had helped her survive a war, an acrimonious divorce and near-financial ruin just collapsed almost overnight. In only a few months, she became completely unable to function, or even to remember who she was. She would look at herself in the mirror and complain that “an old woman” – or sometimes a “witch” – was spying on her through a secret window. She died in a retirement home, less than six months afterwards.

That memory has stayed with me, and I used it in Orfeia. I wanted to take a familiar story (the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice) and use it as a metaphor for a woman’s journey from grief to a kind of acceptance. The fairytale and fantasy details act as a reflection of Fay’s mental state, as her life (and maybe her sanity) begins to unravel. I also wanted to hint on some level that her growing confusion and memory loss might be something to do with grief-induced dementia.

If that sounds a little bleak, it is – which is why I also wanted to give Fay some kind of resolution. It’s also the reason I chose to tell this story through the lens of fantasy; because the truth underlying it – the raw grief of a mother robbed of her child – was still too much for me to explore within a real-world setting. But fairy tales are dark tales; in spite of attempts to make them into harmless stories for children, they deal with the darkest of issues – grief, loss, murder, abuse, monsters both human and inhuman, and of course Death, that ultimate monster, and our constant struggle with him – which is why they speak to us on a deeper, more intuitive, more primal level than stories of the real world.

In pre-Freudian times, fairy tales were the only means to express deep and unspoken feelings that could not be otherwise expressed. Now that we understand more about the workings of the human mind, they emerge as a kind of counterpart to the human subconscious; a direct conduit to what we feel; the secret language of Humankind.

During my time as a Languages student I fell into the rabbit-hole of German psychoanalysis. During that time I came to believe that there’s a direct parallel between the levels of the conscious and unconscious mind and the different narratives that we use to express our identity. History is the ego; the conscious, rational, factual mind and the official identity of a culture. Story – that is, fantasy, folklore and fairytale – reflects the human subconscious; its needs, fears, and dreams throughout the centuries; the secret, hidden identity running alongside the official version. So the further we look into ourselves, and the more we explore our cultural identity, the more likely we are to find value in these “fantasy” narratives, which are in fact the truest expressions of our collective unconscious.

In Orfeia I wanted to challenge the distinction between what we think of as “reality” and “fantasy.” Just as Fay slips from one state of consciousness into another, the story slips between both worlds, from the familiar ego-London to the World Below of London’s subconscious and its secret, forest heart.

The framework of existing folklore is surprisingly receptive to this. The two Child Ballads I chose as the foundation of the story lead naturally to each other. King Orfeo – the Celtic adaptation of the Orpheus myth – already contains many fairytale elements, which made it easy to incorporate the further elements from The Elphin Knight. And the idea of riddles as a means of communicating with Death (the unknown, the unconscious mind, etc) just seemed like the next logical step. To expand my theory of the conscious and the unconscious mind as a universal analogy, I was trying to introduce the idea that fantasy and reality are all part of the same world, just as the conscious and the unconscious mind are all part of the same brain. Anything that can be imagined is real on some level of existence. That means that all my books – including the ones not generally seen as fantasy – are actually part of the same extended multiverse. Whether I’m writing fantasy as Joanne M. Harris, or literary fiction as Joanne, I like the symmetry of that – and also how much it will annoy those among the literary community who refuse to acknowledge fantasy as the legitimate art form it undoubtedly is.