Just as my eighth novel, The Housewarming, came out of lockdown#1, growing as it did from the seeds of the interconnectedness of community and why how we behave as individuals matters, so my ninth, The One to Blame, came out of lockdown #2 (or was it #3, #4???), with its sense of grief, longing to be reunited with loved ones, and guilt about how we could have looked after one another better. The Housewarming centres on the disappearance of a toddler from the family home due to the front door being left open. A year later, a chance remark at a housewarming party sets a chain of revelations in motion that will eventually unveil the mystery of what happened that terrible day. The One to Blame stretches over a much longer time period in the lives two sisters, Annie and Isla Andrews, who are separated by the paths they have taken and by the tragic death of the elder sister, Annie.
But actually, now I’m thinking about it, novels don’t grow from themes, do they? The seed of a novel is the thing that happens; it is in the execution of taking the thing and making it happen to the poor unwitting protagonist and using what the poor unwitting protagonist is like to create an explosion big enough to propel the reader to the end of book. The themes coalesce along the way, as if out of the mist. The themes are not the story – if they take precedence, it’s probably an essay.
Often, an author has no idea what they were processing on a deeper level until the book is finished. This, at least, is how it is for me. I could say I was aiming to capture the zeitgeist of the moment when I wrote The Housewarming but that would be a lie. I’m not that clever. I knew I wasn’t writing about the pandemic itself – it was upon us, it was too close, but the themes relating to the pandemic insinuated themselves into both The Housewarming and The One To Blame because, deep down in the soup of the subconscious, all that was bothering me made its way into the stories without me realising. In the case of The Housewarming, the depressingly selfish behaviour of people emptying the supermarket shelves or gathering in large numbers; in The One To Blame, the fact that, like many people, I could not see my son, could not see my parents, could not see my sister or help with her kids. This did not stop me worrying about them. It did not stop me from knowing that they were suffering. And it did not stop me from feeling guilty, wondering if I could do more than FaceTime, run the odd errand or send stuff via Amazon.
The One to Blame started life as a vague notion that I wanted to write an Almodóvar-influenced thriller. I studied Modern Languages at University and have always loved Spain and Spanish culture. Almodóvar’s films are cheeky, playful, and often centre on the lives of women and on those who live on the fringes of society. His films often deal with painful separations and emotional reunions, women who love one another fiercely and drive one another mad. His work often contains melodrama and a twist of some sort. I wanted a drama with sisters at its heart and decided to take my twist from one of Almodóvar’s films – I won’t say which – as a kind of homage, a wee wink: Thanks, Pedro.
Once I had the twist, I built the plot around it – what really happened that dark night. The characters were then built such that they would react to events in a way that served the plot. Annie’s story could not have happened to Isla, since Isla is built differently and would have made different choices. Isla’s story is the same. As a reader, I get annoyed when I have invested in a character, only to find them reacting as the author clearly needs them to in order for the plot to work but in a way which feels inauthentic.
In The One to Blame, the inciting incident is twofold, since there are two main characters. Annie, the elder sister, becomes pregnant at 15, in a small village, with strict Presbyterian parents. This event shapes her entire life and informs her ‘disastrous’ decision later on. Isla, five years younger, becomes in a sense the elder sister in this moment, trying to find a solution for her frightened older sibling when she is herself only ten. This experience almost defines their relationship, their sense of self, their bond. The second inciting incident happens to Isla, twenty-two years later. Isla is by now living in London and pursuing her career when her by now grown-up nephew, Callum, calls her to tell her that his mother and step-father have died in a fire in Annie’s cabin-style art studio in the back garden of their Dorset home. Isla is on the next train out of London. What she finds upon her arrival will lay bare the truths of her sister’s life, truths which she will feel she should have known. It will bring home to Isla that she has lost touch with her sister in all the important ways. She is no longer her sister’s confidante – that role has belonged to her best friend, Daisy, who has been there for Annie in ways Isla has not. Isla has done nothing wrong – it’s just what happens – but the traumatic unfolding of events leaves her awash with guilt and regret, as tragedy often does. So, how are Annie and Isla’s stories resolved and who really is the one to blame for the deaths? Well now, that would be telling.
(c) S E Lynes
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About The One To Blame:
Why would you pretend your life is a dream when you’re living a nightmare?
Annie and Dom lead perfect lives in a lovely cottage in a quiet village by the sea, with flowers at the front gate and an apple tree in the garden. Everyone knows them: generous loving Dom, creative joyful Annie.
But their neighbours don’t see Annie as she sits waiting for Dom well into the night. They don’t see her smiling through her tears. They don’t know what the perfect couple are hiding.
They just hear the sirens that break the silence of the night and see the flames that rise against the dark sky.
And the morning after, what everyone wants to know is – which one was to blame?
A brilliantly twisty tale of family secrets and the darkness that can lie behind closed doors, The One to Blame will keep you turning the pages till the final devastating revelation. Fans of Lisa Jewell, Gillian Flynn and Louise Candlish will love it.
Order your copy online here.