I’m very excited to welcome Christobel Kent to the blog. Her latest book, The Crooked House is published in paperback today. I read this late last year and loved it. You can read my review here.
Today I have a triple treat. Christobel talks about setting the scene for The Crooked House, in a departure from the norm, there’s an extract from the book and a chance to win a signed copy. Even I don’t have a signed copy. I may enter myself…
Setting the Scene
Having set all my previous novels in Italy, it was a risk to leave territory I’d camped out on for a long time, a place I love, where I’ve made friends and been happy, a place that has enriched me and taught me all sorts of things. But, The Crooked House is set somewhere I also know very intimately, somewhere I spent some of the most significant years of my life – the grey edge of the island kingdom, the muddy estuaries north of the Thames, one of the most mysterious and secret parts of a crowded and busy country. After my mother died and my father remarried – ominously quickly, within the year – we moved from a big house my parents, it turned out, couldn’t afford, to a Thames barge on the coast, a sailing coastal barge with big red sails, more than a hundred feet long. Two warring adults and eight – count ‘em – children. There were four of us and my stepmother – the standard issue wicked variety – had four of her own. It was a disaster, predictably enough, it was squalid and painful, it descended into a nasty variety of chaos that ended with separation, divorce, homelessness and mental illness: I don’t go back often. My brother lives there still, after years of living on boats with his family they now have a happy house on the edge of a quiet little Essex village that sits on the edge of marshes. It’s a beautiful place, it’s my idea of the most English part of England because no foreigner knows it, its beauty is subtle and understated, an acquired taste like eels and samphire: it’s Eric Ravilious to Italy’s Titian.
But I don’t go back often, because there’s too much there, somehow. Too much confused emotion, too much dark magic: it was one of the unhappiest and most marvellous times of my life. So it has stayed in a little box, very precious, quite dangerous, a little box that if you opened it would release a smell of diesel and mud, tatters of posters from the bands I used to hitchhike to with my big brother, the echoes of the vicious rows of a family in total meltdown, sea-fog and a wide horizon: now seems about the right time to bring it out. A teenage girl, alone in her attic bedroom on the edge of marshes on the Essex coast one midsummer night, listens to sounds from the house below her, trying to make sense of them: the more she listens, the more ominous the sounds become. And when at last the dawn comes and she ventures downstairs, her life has changed forever. Something terrible has come into the house: her family is destroyed, and she is the sole survivor and only witness to a massacre.
My publishers seem to think I’ve pulled it off, which is a relief. Sometimes what I feel is better than relief, it’s more like euphoria. Home is always home, and falling in love all over again with something you’ve spent a lifetime taking for granted – whether it’s your back garden or your husband or a grey forgotten landscape – feels like the essential next stage.
To celebrate the paperback publication, the publishers; Little, Brown, have kindly given me permission to share an extract of the book with you. So sit back and prepare to be drawn in to Esme’s world…
Thirteen Years Ago
When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. A vibration through the mattress, through the flowered duvet, through the damp pillow she’s buried her face in. It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.
Wait, listen: one, two, three. BOOM.
Is this how it begins?
Leaning on the shelf over the desk, wooden letters spelling her name jitter against the wall. They were a present on her seventh birthday, jigsawn by Dad, E.S.M.E. The family’d just moved in, unloading their stuff outside this house they called the crooked house, she and Joe, as the sun went down over the dark marsh inland. Creek House to Crooked House, after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk. Mum was gigantic with the twins, a Zeppelin staggering inside with bags in each hand. We need more space now, is how they told her and Joe they were moving. It was seven years ago, seven plus seven. Now she’s fourteen, nearly. Fourteen next week.
Ah, go on, Gina had said. Just down it. Then, changing tack, You can give it me back, then.
Esme’s been back an hour. She isn’t even sure Joe saw her pass the sitting-room door, jammed back on the sofa and frowning under his headphones: since he hit sixteen he’s stopped looking anyone in the eye. The girls, a two-headed caterpillar in an old sleeping bag on the floor, wriggled back from in front of the TV, twisting to see her. Letty’s lolling head, the pirate gap between Mads’s front teeth as she grins up at her, knowing. She mouths something. Boyfriend. Esme turns her face away and stomps past.
Mum opening the kitchen door a crack, leaning back from the counter to see who it is. Frowning like she can’t place her, she gets like that a lot these days. What are you doing back? Esme doesn’t answer: she is taking the stairs three at a time, raging.
Outside the dark presses on the window, the squat power station stands on the horizon, the church out on the spit that looks no bigger than a shed from here, the village lights distant. Make all the noise you like out here, Dad’s always saying, no one can hear.
Hands over your ears and never tell.
On the bed she lies very still, willing it to go, to leave the house. Whatever it is.
Her hands were already over her ears, before it started. Why? The boom expands in her head and she can’t even remember now. All she knows is, she was standing at the window, now she’s on the bed.
She grapples with detail. She heard a car. There were voices below in the yard and, after, noises downstairs. Something scraping across the floor, a low voice muttering and she didn’t want to deal with it, with his questions; she flung herself down on the bed and the tears began to leak into the pillow. She would have put on her music but she didn’t want him to know she was back.
Now. A sound, a human sound, just barely: a wounded shout, a gasp, trying to climb to a scream that just stops, vanishes. And in the silence after it she hears breathing, heavy and ragged; up through three storeys and a closed door, it is as if the house is breathing. And Esme is off the bed, scrabbling for a place to hide.
On the marsh behind the house there are the remains of an old hut with a little rotted jetty. The tide is beginning to come up, gurgling in its channels, trickling across the mud that stretches inland, flooding the clumps of samphire and marsh grass and the buried timbers. Behind her the house stands crooked in the wind freshening off the estuary.
The lights of the police cars come slowly, bumping down the long track, an ambulance, the cab lit. It is three in the morning but the inky dark is already leaching to grey behind the church on the spit. One of the coldest June nights on record, and it takes them a while to find her. She doesn’t make a sound.
Want to read more? The Crooked House is available in bookshops now or can be bought from Amazon here.
* This extract is from a copyrighted work of fiction and has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. It must not be copied without permission
For a chance to win a signed copy simply leave a comment below by 9pm on 30 April 2015. (UK only I’m afraid. Neither I or the publishers take responsibility for the prize getting lost in the post.)