You know that paragraph at the beginning of books, explaining that what you’re about to read is a work of fiction, with names, characters, places and incidents purely down to the author’s imagination? When I read a Kate Long novel I feel like taking issue with that, reckoning I know the people involved.
Many published authors fail in that respect, yet Kate manages it time and again. Ask her, and she’ll reiterate that nothing personal goes in, or her books aren’t based on people she knows. She puts it down to copious amounts of research, but there’s more to it than that. It’s one thing to read case studies, another to have the craft to suggest truth from fiction.
From The Bad Mother’s Handbook onwards, Kate’s fan-base has truly identified with her characters, with latest offering Something Only We Know a further example. It’s not like she’s taken an easy option either. This Lancashire-raised, Shropshire-based author knows the Cheshire setting she’s chosen, yet this only child and mum of two lads convincingly tells a tale of two sisters, the oldest living in the shadows of an anorexic past.
The story is based around Jen, a trainee journalist not long out of uni, dealing with a number of problems on the home front, not least simmering family fall-out related to past eating disorder issues with big sis Helen. And while we might more readily identify with Jen’s more commonplace worries – over her career, boyfriends, sibling rivalry and parents – the author pulls us into the root problem too.
She’s big on issues in her books, and in this case it’s a mighty one, the elephant in the room as the family tip-toe around Hel, trying to avoid the eggshells. Mixed metaphors? Yep, but Kate has 400 pages to tell her tale, while I’ve just got this review.
As the author stressed in our recent interview – regarding writing about anorexia – you don’t want to get something like that wrong. Well, I’m pleased to report she makes sense of the condition. Luckily, I’ve not been around anyone in that situation, but found this a convincing study. In typical Kate Long fashion, it seems real.
At times I want Jen to do more to shake up her parents, her boyfriend and her sister, but it’s always easier from the outside. Besides, her protagonist is at a difficult time in her fledgling career, readjusting to home life after time away, reticent to rock the boat too much. She knows hers is far from a functional family, yet has enough respect for those around her to hang in there and help where she can.
While eating disorders have never been on my family radar, certain aspects of this book are closer to home, and I find Kate’s depiction of a newspaper office environment extremely plausible. Not just her pen-pic of a self-important, ladder-climbing editor, ‘Tweed-Knickers’ as she is dubbed, but Jen’s close-quarters sub-editor Gerry too. Again, I feel like I know both, the same going for the sports editor and the publication itself.
Drawing great characters isn’t enough on its own, but Kate doesn’t disappoint with her plot, several strands nicely weaved together. I won’t say much more than that, but there’s plenty of love interest and a little politics too. And as we go further in, it’s fair to say I feel more empathy for the main characters than I might have earlier on.
It’s that old concept of – as E.H. Shepard put it in his second autobiography – characters ‘drawn from life’. Not so much boy or girl next door fiction as family across the road fiction, people you think you know but when it comes down to it you’re not so sure.
As the title hints, there’s a thematic undercurrent of too many secrets, hidden in the exchanges between Jen and sister Helen, their parents and their boyfriends. But while a lot lies beneath the surface, surely that’s the case for every family. And if some of the exchanges seem mundane, isn’t that how it really is?
Kate shines a light on those feelings building up within. There are many light moments, but uncomfortable truths brought to the surface too. And it’s to her credit that pretty soon you’re there with Jen, willing her to break from an often-stifling environment. In fact, you grow to empathise with the wider family, even if in real life I might still only give them a slight nod as I pass. Perhaps that’s just the British way.
For this blog’s recent interview with Kate Long, head here.
And for all the latest from Kate, including details of how to get hold of a copy of Something Only We Know (published by Simon & Schuster in paperback and ebook format), try her website here.