Chichester writer Isabel Ashdown on her new psychological thriller
PUBLISHED: 16:12 13 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:12 13 October 2017
Isabel Ashdown won fans with her evocative coming-of-age novels. Here she speaks to Jenny Mark-Bell about making her first foray into the psychological thriller genre
Imagine waking up on New Year’s Day missing whole chunks of what happened the night before.
Some of us might not need to imagine. But for one of the characters in Isabel Ashdown’s new psychological thriller, what’s in question isn’t an ill-advised conversation with an ex or an embarrassing performance on the dancefloor, but the disappearance of a baby. Jess wasn’t under the influence but medically incapacitated and the baby isn’t hers but her sister’s.
As the family falls apart under the pressure of the police investigation, no-one escapes suspicion: not Daisy’s parents; not her doting stepsister; not the aunt who was supposed to be taking care of her. And at the heart of the mystery is the question of why Jess and Emily have been estranged for 16 years.
Little Sister is part of a recent cohort of psychological thrillers dealing with simmering suspicions between siblings and Isabel thinks the relationship is uniquely set up for drama. “Your sister is often your best friend, but more than that. She knows you warts and all. That’s both wonderful and troubling because she really does know you – you can’t reinvent yourself in the way you can with new friends.”
This is Isabel’s first book in the genre – although she says “I’ve been edging in that direction with my last couple of books” – but she is revisiting familiar themes: “I love troubled relationships and the idea that we’re all carrying secrets that might stay buried forever but otherwise might be the undoing of us.
“We can allow our family to do all kinds of terrible things to us and perhaps we are more forgiving in some ways, but we’re also more wounded. If a friend betrays you, cutting the ties is painful but possible. If it’s a family member it’s not so straightforward.”
What differentiated the writing of this book from her previous novels is the amount of plotting Isabel had to do in advance. Being a psychological thriller it is full of twists, some of which took even her by surprise. “I always think that if I didn’t see it coming, I’m hoping that my reader won’t have seen it coming either. In the same way I hope that if a scene makes me emotional, it will have the same effect on the reader,” she says.
The book’s Isle of Wight setting is key to its atmosphere and geography helps drive the plot. It’s not the first time Isabel has used the island – which for her is something of a writing retreat – in her books. In this one there were both practical and emotional reasons for making it the setting of the action. “I’m always struck by that sense of leaving my life behind when I travel over the water. When you arrive there’s a contained feeling. I knew that was going to be important because of the sense of claustrophobia. The difficulty of escaping was maximised by that sense of being surrounded on all sides by water.”
The fractious relationship between the missing baby’s family and the press is skilfully rendered – being both symbiotic and predatory. The characters are aware that their emotional appeals are being scrutinised by police and public alike for signs of guilt.
Little Sister marks the start of a new era in Isabel’s writing career as she joins publisher Trapeze, an imprint of Orion. She had a two-book deal which meant writing them in very quick succession. Her next book, which comes out in 2018, is called Beautiful Liars. “I’m writing one book and promoting the other so my brain is very much in two stories!” says Isabel, who plans to start another book in January next year.
It has been a while since she set a book here in Sussex. “I love writing about the places I know intimately. I’ve travelled a lot but I can’t say I’ve found anywhere I’m quite so connected as Sussex.”
Little Sister is £7.99 in paperback.
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