Kind of Cruel, and an interview with author Sophie Hannah
In her latest book, Kind of Cruel, Sophie Hannah presents a tense and thought-provoking tale of memory, repression, denial and deceit; a murder mystery conducted behind closed doors and forgotten events.
“True memories are frail, fragmentary apparitions, easily bulldozed into submission by a robust narrative that has been carefully engineered to stick in the mind. Almost as soon as we’ve had an experience, we decide what we would like it to mean, and we construct a story around it that is going to make that possible… Sometimes we need to demolish our endlessly told tales in order to get to the real memories. It’s a bit like stripping layer after layer of paint off a brick wall. Underneath, we find original bricks – stained and discoloured, in poor condition after years of not being able to breathe.”
Amber Hewerdine is a cynical, sarcastic wife and recent guardian to two girls whose mother was murdered in an unsolved arson case. Suffering from a seemingly incurable case of severe insomnia, Amber visits a hypnotherapist, Ginny, as a last resort. During her first session, she unwillingly reveals a fragment of memory, something she has seen but deliberately forgotten, the words: ‘Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel’. Amber is then arrested for the murder of a woman she has never met or heard of before. All she can think is that her memories and the murder are somehow connected to these words and to a strange event that happened years ago at a place called Little Orchard, where four members of her family inexplicably disappeared for a single night.
Hannah’s seventh crime novel is an astute examination of the duality of familial love versus familial duty. This fertile ground for psychoanalytical study taps into the unpleasant truth that we are often far crueler to our family than we are to our friends, and far more willing to take on sometimes impossible and life-changing tasks out of feelings of obligation. In Kind of Cruel we are forced to determine exactly how far we will go for family, the cost of duty to our own personal happiness and the often devastating consequences it can produce.
In an interview with The Independent in 2010, Hannah said: ‘I grew up thinking that the world was full of goodies and baddies.’ Kind of Cruel introduces a grey area where the reader is almost forced to be sympathetic towards those who go to extraordinary measures to protect themselves under extreme pressure. These people cannot be categorised as either ‘Kind’ or ‘Cruel‘, they are simply ‘Kind of Cruel.’
There are few truly heart-pounding, gut-wrenching moments in Hannah’s plot-driven book. No gruesome murders, forensic science or shady characters litter the pages. Instead, Hannah builds a creeping level of unease, a prolonged feeling of suspicion combined with the slow, ticking trauma of a David Lynch film: there is something horribly wrong here and something potentially disturbing is about to happen; and you, as a reader, just aren’t entirely sure when it will happen or what it is.
The novel itself is almost a slow burner. The reader gradually becomes more and more absorbed in its pace and the lilt of Hannah’s narrative and eventually the plot, whose chapters are spliced with Ginny’s first-person account of Amber’s therapy sessions, begins to pick away at you as you read with a sustained, restless tension.
The writing itself is engaging, sometimes modern and slick and sometimes surprisingly poetic (perhaps not so surprising when you learn that Hannah began her writing career as a poet): ‘Something flashes and dissolves in my mind. A fraction of a second later, no traces are left, apart from a vague sense of movement quickly swallowed by stillness. The first stage of remembering or nothing? Probably nothing, I decide. Naïve to assume that a memory would lay itself bare in stages like a stripper.’
Taunting and taut, with believable characters and meticulously researched, credible human psychology, Kind of Cruel is an excellent addition to Hannah’s repertoire of decidedly different crime fiction.
The Upcoming caught up with Sophie Hannah to ask her about the inspiration behind Kind of Cruel.
Can you tell us about the conception of Kind of Cruel? Have you always been interested in psychology and hypnotherapy?
I’ve got a fan in Canada who writes to me every time I have a book out and I noticed that every time I got an email from this chap, at the bottom of it, there was an address of what looked like a hypnotherapy site. I’m interested in psychology and psychotherapy generally and I kept seeing this link, so I thought one day I would have a look at it. There was a page of frequently asked questions and reading it, it quickly became clear to me that my idea of what hypnosis and hypnotherapy might consist of was not the same as what they said it was.
So I started then to be really fascinated and I thought, most people I know have this misconception of what hypnosis and hypnotherapy actually are; it’s one of those things where the myth is more powerful than the truth. So I looked into hypnotherapy. I sort of knew there was potential for a story there, I didn’t quite know how or what, but I knew I wanted to investigate further.
How did you go about investigating?
I actually had some hypnotherapy myself. While I was having my session I had the idea for the beginning of the plot, the idea that someone would be having hypnotherapy and they would hear themselves say something and not know where it came from.
And did your hypnotherapist use the ‘imagine a staircase’ scenario like Amber‘s in the book?
Yes! The staircase thing really threw me, one of my obsessions is interior design and houses. When this therapist turned to me and said: ‘I’d like you to imagine the most beautiful staircase you can possibly imagine’… Well, I need a sketchbook and a few copies of Home & Garden and at least two hours, and I got really hung up on that, and before I knew it I had missed all the important stuff, you know! I was still designing my staircase!
Is Amber your voice in the book?
Amber is probably more cynical than me. I wouldn’t have gone for hypnotherapy unless I thought it would be useful in a way. I thought readers would be able to sympathise with that more easily. I was absolutely sceptical about my ability to be hypnotised. My hypnotherapist kept saying: ‘Don’t worry, you are hypnotised.’ To me, it just felt as though I was bitching about people with my eyes closed, frankly.
The idea of family love and duty is a prevalent theme in the book. Is it something you feel strongly about?
The theme of personal happiness versus family duty, that is something I have wanted to write about for a long time. I kept hearing my friends say things like: ‘Oh well, of course when my dad dies we’ll have to have my mum move in with us, which might ruin our entire lives!” I kept hearing people saying things like that, and thinking that if this should ruin your entire life, maybe you shouldn’t do it. Certainly, lots of people have obligations like that, they feel they have to fulfill. In those cases, they presumably feel that someone else’s wellbeing and needs would trump their own, in some way.
Do you think family life provides unusually fertile fodder for crime fiction?
Most people are not in danger of falling prey to a serial killer, but almost everyone is in danger from members of their family. Not in danger of being murdered, but certainly in danger of having their lives ruined in some way by members of their own family. Families are weird, secret institutions where, when the door is closed, anything could be going on.
Are there autobiographical elements in Kind of Cruel?
Yes, a huge amount, lashings of autobiographical bits. it’s weird because it’s not as though there is a character in the book based on me; but Amber is a kind of version of me, a much more bitchy, openly sarky version. There is quite a lot of me in all of my books. Actually, another autobiographical element is the whole thing about Amber inheriting her best friends children when she dies, that was directly inspired by an autobiographical event! [Sophie was once asked to be a guardian to her friend’s children in their event of their death, as were a couple of her own close friends.]
When I asked how they would actually feel about it, my friend said: ‘Oh, that would be horrible!’ I asked why she agreed and she answered: ‘Well you can’t say no, can you?’ So I wanted to write about that, a fascinating theme that I have never read about in fiction before.
I found it hard not to sympathise with the characters in the book, even the murderer. Was that what you intended?
I want people to empathise with as many of them as possible. None of my characters are all good or all bad, even the person who eventually turns out to be a baddie in Kind of Cruel. Once you realise what they have to contend with psychologically, it’s not that you sympathise with them but you can see that they are not bad and horrible; they’re people who are under immense pressure themselves. It’s desperation that’s made them to be the way they are.
If you watch the news and you see that someone has committed a murder, you might think: ‘What a git!’ But if you personally know someone [who has commited a crime], it is very difficult to condemn that person outright.
Kind of Cruel features your re-occurring police officer, the detached and super-intelligent Simon Waterhouse. Do you see him as a super-cop?
I when I was creating him as a character, I knew what I wanted him to be: not a super cop – because that makes him sound like a macho, action hero, which he’s not – but certainly cerebrally and mentally, he is a super-clever, an usually clever and perceptive detective like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. I wanted to have a very contemporary, clever detective because I think that is one of the great pleasures of detective fiction, that you know this person is on the case, he’s much cleverer than you, you can relax and you know that they will explain everything at the end. So I deliberately made Simon like that.
What’s next after Kind of Cruel?
It will be adapted for TV at some point. ITV1 are hoping to adapt all of my books. There’s one on at the end of March, which is my fourth novel The Other Half Live. And I think in 2013, they’re hoping to do three more. So at some point, Kind of Cruel will be on screen.
Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th February 2012. Price: £12.99