An astonishing book.M.W. Craven

One of the challenges I faced when writing People of Abandoned Character was the fact that the main protagonist was complicated – and a woman. I had a lot of feedback that she wasn’t likeable enough, but I was determined to keep her as flawed as she was. I think it’s a particular curse especially for female characters (as well as in real life). Women cannot seem to escape the burden of having to please – even in fiction when they’re having a terrible time of it or on the cusp of death – women have to be nice. The most interesting characters are the most complicated and conflicted – I think anyway. To think otherwise does both men and women in real life a disservice. We are all flawed, and women as much as men are capable of horrible thoughts and deeds. I’ve always been drawn to these complex beasts, so here are my top ten people of abandoned character ­– a selection of those who have become etched in my brain. They’re not evil, or even bad, or entirely of abandoned character, but on occasion they’ve all let the cool slither of ice that runs through their veins speak or make decisions on their behalf. Often, it’s what’s kept them alive, sometimes it’s merely because they felt like it.

Kainene – Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Nzgozi Adichie

Out of all the characters in this book about the Nigerian Civil War that took place in 1967–1970 the one that sticks in my brain is Kainene. She’s beautiful and uncompromising, and definitely has that cool slither of ice. She’s not a bad person, but I can see how some people would find her unlikeable, especially when compared to her more maternal twin sister, Olanna. Kainene is driven and ruthless when she works for their father’s company. When the war breaks out she even profits from it, but in the end she puts herself in harm’s way trying to find purpose and meaning during the war – the very definition of a situation lacking in any purpose and meaning.

I didn’t know you could give a voice to those little tiny snippets of your brain that were less than perfect!? Other people thought like that? It blew my mind.”

Billy Pilgrim – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the book that made me want to be a writer. It was Billy, the ex-POW now time-travelling optometrist with all his inner thoughts who’s to blame for me even thinking being a writer might be possible. The way he talks about his tedious marriage, the way he talks about his family and his experiences as a prisoner of war. I didn’t know you could give a voice to those little tiny snippets of your brain that were less than perfect!? Other people thought like that? It blew my mind. And he wrote it down?!?! I love how he recalls with humour as dry as a husk his experiences of being captured and his observations of other prisoners, in Dresden in WW2.

Sue Trinder – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue is a bit of a trickster from the start. She’s an orphan raised by Mrs Sucksby, the matriarchal leader of a gang of thieves in Victorian England. She’s sent as a maid to a young heiress in order to assist conman Richard Rivers in her seduction. She’s part of the plot in the beginning and as a professional thief doesn’t have any scruples about their objective at all. There are a fair few people of abandoned character in this tale of three parts but Sue is my favourite, and conflicted by what she’s part of as soon as she starts to accidentally fall in love with the heiress. Before this, Sue knows what she is doing is wrong but, meh…

Selina Dawes – Affinity by Sarah Waters

Another fantastic and complicated story from the Victorian era. Selina Dawes is brilliant – a medium who is imprisoned after a wealthy client she lives with by grace and favour, Mrs Brink, dies after a séance Selina holds. It all gets a bit complicated from there but it’s a tale of obsession and deceit. Selina starts to receive visits while in prison from a lady visitor – a gentle woman called Margaret Prior. You really can’t tell what Selina is up too, if she is devious or a victim herself. It’s hard to tell what her true motivation is, she is the perfect mixture between mysterious and alluring.

Evie Boyd – The Girls by Emma Cline

This book haunted me for a long time. The lead character Evie gets under the skin and perfectly captures the inner narrative of a lost, slightly depressed and becoming more cynical by the day 14-year-old girl. Its set in 1969 in California. Her parents have divorced, she’s growing out of her friends. The whole book is about a summer where she begins to find it hard to know her place in the world – then she is drawn to a group of girls with an enigmatic leader called Russell. She gets up to all sorts of questionable things because she’s attracted to a girl in the group, Suzanne, who takes a special interest in her. It’s based around the Manson Family, but less about Manson and more around the clique of girls that followed him in the lead-up to the Tate murders.

Amy is perfectly cool, calculated and does a fantastic project-management job of stitching up her husband like a kipper.”

Amy Dunne – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Obviously this was made into a huge film, but I think the book does a much better job at leaving the reader really torn over who is the bigger arsehole. In fact Nick and Amy Dunne, the lead characters, really suit each other. It starts when they both find themselves unemployed and are forced to relocate to Nick’s hometown in Missouri. Amy is perfectly cool, calculated and does a fantastic project-management job of stitching up her husband like a kipper once she discovers he’s been having an affair with a young student of his. It’s the voice of Amy that I love, she’s angry, spiteful, but anyone who has been in a relationship and been taken advantage of and taken for granted, would find it hard not to relate to the rage she gives voice to.

Camille Preaker – Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Camille has a really difficult relationship with her mother – and in the beginning you can’t understand who to believe since Camille’s mental stability is definitely in question. She has a history of self-harming, she skirts around the edges of acceptable decision-making, and you get a real sense of self-loathing, but that’s what makes her intriguing and relatable. Camille is sent to her hometown, a place called Wind Gap in Missouri, to investigate a series of brutal murders of young girls, but it’s her family situation which is the most compelling here – there are some very interesting characters in that bunch. There’s a dark backstory with some threads that help explain Camille’s mental fragility.

Merricat – We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This is one of those atmospheric little stories where you can’t really gauge what the context is because everything is through Merricat’s point of view. She seems sweet and adorable, charming, if a little naïve, but there’s worrying elements in her behaviour. She’s eighteen years old and she still lives in her little fantasy world and wants to be with her beloved sister, Constance, forever. They live in a decrepit house in some isolation from the nearest village. There’s a rather murky backstory which explains why it’s just the two sisters and their elderly uncle left in the house. Merricat is such an intriguing character and lives almost entirely inside her head, which makes her childlike, but a little twisted.

Leo Demidov – Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Leo is an MGB agent who has to investigate child murders in Stalin’s Soviet Union – a state where murder is conceptually impossible because under Stalin there is no such thing as crime, let alone murder. I loved learning about the era, something I knew very little about. Leo’s character seems balanced enough, but when you realise who he has worked for, what he’s done to people in the name of the Soviet Union as an MGB agent, even how he managed to meet his wife Raisa, you realise he isn’t quite the principled war hero he even believes he is in the beginning.

Veronika – Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

This is a short book but took me a long time to read because I found it so difficult – the voice of Veronika (in third person) really hit me in the gut and I had to keep putting it down. She is a young twenty-something from Slovenia. There’s nothing especially wrong with Veronika or her life. It’s perfectly average and adequate, but she’s underwhelmed at her present and doesn’t want what she sees in her future so she decides to save herself all that bother and commit suicide. After an overdose she wakes up in Villette, a mental hospital. She learns she only has days to live as the attempt has caused irreparable damage to her heart. It sounds depressing, but it’s actually an uplifting story as Veronika discovers a new sense of freedom and appreciation of life as she waits to die.

 

Clare Whitfield is a UK-based writer living in a suburb where the main cultural landmark is a home store/Starbucks combo. She is the wife of a tattoo artist, mother of a small benign dictator and relies on a black Labrador for emotional stability. She has been a dancer, copywriter, amateur fire-breather, buyer and mediocre weightlifter. People of Abandoned Character, her first novel, about a young woman in Victorian London who believes her husband might be Jack the Ripper, is published in hardback and eBook by Head of Zeus.
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