Sanjida Kay lives in Bristol with her husband and daughter. Bone by Bone, published by Corvus Books, is her first psychological thriller. Sanjida has dropped by the blog to talk about sense of place in a novel. She will be discussing psychological thrillers at the fantastic Novel Nights on March 17th. If you're in Bristol and free on that night you should check it out.
Twitter: Sanjida Kay
Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay published by Corvus Books 3 March 2016
Selected by Jake Kerridge, Sunday Express, as a
Thriller you won’t want to miss in 2016
How far would you go to protect your child?
When her daughter is bullied, Laura makes a terrible mistake…
Laura is making a fresh start. Recently divorced and relocated to Bristol, she's carving a new life for herself and her nine-year-old daughter, Autumn. But things aren't going as well as she'd hoped. Autumn's sweet nature and artistic bent are making her a target for bullies.
When Autumn fails to return home from school one day Laura goes looking for her and finds a crowd of older children taunting her little girl. In the heat of the moment, Laura is overcome with rage and makes one terrible mistake. A mistake that will have devastating consequences for her and her daughter...
…a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells…
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Sense of place is hugely important in fiction, but in some novels, the landscape is as much a part of the plot as the characters. Wuthering Heights is synonymous with the Yorkshire moors. It’s hard to imagine The Beach by Alex Garland not set on a Thai beach. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is unthinkable without Kerala, and where would those modern-day cowboys be if they were not roaming the great American West in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy?
I’ve always been inspired by landscape and the natural world and it features heavily in my fiction. When I came to write my fifth novel and first psychological thriller, I decided to set it in Bristol where I live. Just to add to the challenge of writing in a different genre, I thought I’d aim for a gritty urban landscape, graffiti-ridden and litter-strewn.
A cool white, wintry light glazed the buildings on the highest hill: Will’s memorial, the unsightly chimney from the hospital, the modernist cathedral in Clifton. The jumble of styles and eras lent the city the semblance of a medieval Roman town. Laura drove the long way round, up past the Clifton Suspension Bridge, strung like an a engineer’s dream over a river sinking into the mud. Leigh Woods was on the far side, the trees dark, bereft of leaves, clawing at the sky.
What actually happened was that I ended up placing most of the action in a tiny urban nature reserve. In Bone by Bone Laura, newly divorced and relocated to Bristol, learns that her nine-year-old daughter, Autumn, is being bullied at her primary school. When no one takes Laura seriously, she tries to protect Autumn from the bully - with devastating consequences for her and her child. Bone by Bone is set in a mad mixture of two areas in Bristol: Montpelier and St Werburghs. For those who know Bristol intimately, it’ll be obvious that some of my descriptions are realistic but that I’ve shunted whole sections of the landscape around to make my plot work!
The lane led to a miniature nature reserve created between the intersection of three railway tracks. You reached Narroways nature reserve by crossing a thin bridge suspended over the lines. It had high corrugated metal barriers on either side that were scrawled with neon-bright graffiti, and it was encased by wire bars, so that the whole bridge was like a cage.
Narroways nature reserve is where much of the scary stuff happens. In real life, I frequently walk through it, not feeling frightened at all, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wildlife that lives there, from pipistrelles to foxes; wild flowers such as bush vetch and bird’s foot trefoil abound; magpies arrow across the sky and dunnocks scuttle about in the old orchard. In summer you see butterflies, such as the marbled white and clouded silver - which is pretty good going when we’re a stone’s throw away from Tesco Express! The whole area has a rich history, from the watercress farming that took place in the stream below, to the murder of Ada James in 1913 on the path that runs up the side of the reserve. It later became known as Cut Throat Lane. St Werburghs has a fascinating history too: the original saint was an Anglo-Saxon princess who became a nun and apparently restored a goose to life!
Bone by Bone takes place over ten days in autumn, covering Halloween and Bonfire Night. The typical Bristolian weather: grey, drizzly, damp, icy, combined with ghoulishly carved pumpkins in the allotments, all add to the heightened feelings of unease, as Laura and Autumn’s lives spiral increasingly out of control.
What I like about this area, particularly in the early days of autumn, in terms of plotting a thriller, is that you have all the elements that make us tense: a city where we don’t know our neighbours and can feel alone and vulnerable in spite of the numbers of people around, as well as tapping into what frightens us as human beings - darkness, woods, strangers. It’s the juxtaposition of urban and wilderness that I find inspiring:
The lines began to sing, a shrill, electric song, and then the cacophony of the train roared out of the darkness. The carriages were almost empty and painfully bright as they hurtled along the tracks to the heart of the city. In the fleeting light she saw the meadow, dotted with stunted hawthorns, their twisted limbs dense with red berries, and then a shape: achingly familiar, child-sized, shockingly still.