White Bodies is my first novel and right at the beginning, when I was staring at a blank piece of paper, I knew I wanted to write up something dark and suspenseful. I thought hard about how to create that through twisty plotting; but I knew that it was equally important to have a compelling theme and intense atmosphere. I spent ages thinking about this; hours every day as I walked in my local park, made myself a cup of coffee, put washing into the machine. It turned out, in fact, that I was living my own theme – obsession.
Some of my favourite novels are about obsession. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is wonderful, and I’ve read it several times. The rather bland narrator is seemingly weak, and doesn’t even have a name of her own. We know her only as the new wife of Maxim de Winter who, through her own lack of confidence, falls into obsessing about Rebecca– the extraordinary and beautiful first Mrs de Winter, who is now dead. I love that juxtaposition of a perceived weakness and strength, inhibition and social confidence, blandness and vitality – and I used a lot of these ideas in White Bodies.
Most important though, is the contrast between ‘knowing’ one character, whilst another seems ‘unknowable’. In Rebecca, the reader is inside the narrator’s head, privy to her every thought, as she observes with wonder the fundamentally ‘unknowable’ and enigmatic Rebecca. Much of the tension in the novel comes from the changing relationship between the observer and the observed. I attempted something similar in White Bodies, realising that effective pacing of this narrative of discovery was vital.
I guess that envy is often at the heart of this sort of obsession; the central thought being ‘she has all the things that I lack. She has the good looks, the self-confidence, the glamour.’ I refer to the movie Single White Female in the novel. It’s a wonderfully intense portrayal of that sort of envy. We watch Hedra played by Jennifer Jason Leigh becoming increasingly envious, then resentful and malignant as she observes her flatmate Allison played by Bridget Fonda.
It’s not quite like that with Callie and Tilda. As I started to write as Callie I realised that whilst she’s weird, she’s also sweet and caring, and not prone to envy. It’s more that she is overawed by a sense of wonder as she watches Tilda obsessively, and struggles to understand her. Also, she loves Tilda to a fierce and frightening degree, and much of her obsession is borne out of a kind of passion that burns within her.
Callie isn’t well-educated, but she’s an intelligent person. Despite that she’s incredibly confused by her strong feelings. She has sleepless nights as she struggles to protect Tilda from harm, and at the same time she’s desperate to stop herself being totally overwhelmed by her sister. It’s this latter part of Callie’s obsession that explains her strange behaviour. She starts eating things that belong to Tilda because that gives her a small, fleeting moment of feeling in control. It starts with corners of Tilda’s diary and bits of her hair – and gets worse. A few readers have found this side of Callie alienating. That wasn’t the case for me. It felt like authentic behaviour, and my heart went out to her because I knew her actions were a response to the suffering she felt as her obsession became too hard to control – too dominating. As Callie grew increasingly obsessive about protecting Tilda, I found myself wanting to protect Callie.
White Bodies by Jane Robins (Published by HarperCollins)
He's so handsome and clever and romantic. I just wished he hadn't forced Tilda under the water and held her there so long. 'Callie loves Tilda. She's her sister, after all. And she's beautiful and successful. Tilda loves Felix. He's her husband. Successful and charismatic, he is also controlling, suspicious and, possibly, dangerous. Still, Tilda loves Felix. And Callie loves Tilda. Very, very much. So she's determined to save her. But the cost could destroy them all. Sometimes we love too much.