My first thoughts, prompted by a patch of insomnia, were about night itself: the darkness which seldom is complete darkness, the way moonlight illuminates yet bleaches out colour, the whiteness, rather than the blackness of night, the other-worldness, the visual tranquillity of night coming round after the brashly lit, multi-coloured confusion of daytime.
I thought about night as a place of retreat and sanctuary, the domain of lovers and dreamers, a benign place of serenity, rapture, spirituality and inspiration – broadly speaking, as night was portrayed prior to, and within the 17th century, pre-industrial, pastoral literary tradition of the poetic nocturne (Merchant of Venice, circa 1598, Act V: Lorenzo’s ‘Sit, Jessica, look how the floor of heaven’ speech is a good example). This tradition has been almost overwhelmed by the modern, essentially urban treatment of night (and nowhere more than in crime fiction) as the domain of danger and evil, the realm of the criminal/devil, the cover for foul deeds and skull-duggery.
I was interested in the tension between these two opposing metaphorical positions and wanted to write a story set in an ambiguous night world in which both would be at work. So the two main characters try to escape into night – the car driver retreating from her guilt, Arthur from his grief – both in search of purpose and meaning, of atonement and comfort, while the reader, I hope, watches through his or her fingers as their searches become increasingly bizarre and hazardous, and night turns treacherous, no longer a refuge from the world’s madness but itself a trap of insanity.
That said, I didn’t realise until I was quite a way into writing it that the novel is about varying states of blindness and invisibility: the blinding effect of too much light in sharp sunlight, the varying densities of night darkness, and the half-seen, in-betweeny place where the merely imagined, imperfectly remembered things reside. It is about the invisibility of people to one another at all levels, physically and emotionally, within marriages, between parents and children, between the living and the dead, the remembered and forgotten.
As a result of taking Ruth’s life, the narrator is in a state of moral exile (and how I wish I had realised that she is an Ancient Mariner figure before I had finished writing, but I only saw that afterwards) but she is also shunned by her fellow human beings because of the simple breach in her story. So it’s also a novel about the importance of story to ourselves, the unreliability but absolute necessity to us of history and memory and dream, and the act of arranging them into a coherent personal account. The narrator is adrift, not just because she took Ruth’s life but because she cannot answer her own question, posed at the beginning: “If events have shattered a life’s narrative as utterly as death itself, how do I go on as if I believed in mere continuation, never mind solace and amends?”
Very near the end she says “… light passes back and forth over what I can’t see as well as over this world of dark and changing surfaces, cloud shadows go on scudding over the wavering and inexact shapes of all the unended stories, casting angles and colours and all interpretations out of true. … I may lament all I like the lack of it, but there is no natural law in this world that can take such fragmentary and capricious refractions and make of them anything explicable and whole.”
She is right – there is no natural law – but still for human beings the story, the making of meaning, has to carry on, and does, often with the help of the arguably manmade laws of Art, or those ascribed to God. Since she is no longer of the world, these powers are now lost to her and she is left by the end of the novel isolated between death and life, and craving to belong again.
I don’t think any of the above determines whether or not the result is a story that a reader feels compelled to read and go on reading. Even if all those intended layers go unperceived, the story has to stand or fall on whether it is engaging and compelling in itself. I wrote it using everything in my power to keep my reader turning the pages, but I don’t know if I’ve written a crime novel, or a novel of ‘psychological suspense’ or some other thing. I wasn’t thinking of any category in the writing of it, though of course I’m thrilled about the Edgar nomination.
The Night Following is published by Duckworth