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The Shadow Child by Rachel Hancox

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Sshadow Child

By Rachel Hancox

The first seed of an idea for The Shadow Child was sown during a real life scene that is mirrored almost exactly in the opening of the book. My protagonists, Cath and Jim, are looking round a house with an estate agent. It’s a tiny Victorian terrace which has been ‘primped and prettified within an inch of its life’, as Jim says later, and it fills Cath with a powerful mixture of nostalgia and longing and regret. She and Jim began their married life (as I did) in a grotty house in Leytonstone with crumbling plaster and threadbare carpets, and Cath wonders, as she walks round this perfect little house, ‘whether a pretty, white-walled house like this one might have set them on a different course. Whether they might, perhaps, have steered more safely around the dangers they had no idea, back then, that life had in store for them.’

So far, so true. Not that I was unhappy about the direction our own lives had gone in; not that I’d have changed the experience of living in that Leytonstone house for anything. It was just a spark of curiosity: does it matter what kind of place you start out in? Estate agents would have you believe it does, of course, and this one was very persuasive. It was tempting to believe that living here would make life as simple and restful and smooth as the varnished floorboards and gleaming kitchen it offered.

And then I thought: suppose you bought a perfect little house like this to let, and the tenants who moved into it somehow mirrored your younger selves? Might that be an interesting idea for a novel? In the beginning, I planned to give the two couples the same names: Cath and Jim, Kate and Jamie. That idea was abandoned along the way as the characters’ lives evolved and the parallels between the two couples became less obvious, but the seed of the novel had taken root by then. Cath and Jim have come into a small inheritance, I decided, and they buy the little house to generate an income to prop up their limited pensions. Something terrible has happened to them, and Cath longs for some of the magic of their young tenants, with their apparently straightforward lives, to rub off on her. But all is not as it seems. The younger couple have their own secrets, their own back stories. As Cath inveigles her way into their lives, she gets more than she bargained for. 

We didn’t buy the little house, but Cath and Jim did. The four characters took up residence in my mind, and their story unfolded over the weeks to come. The terrible thing that had happened to Cath and Jim, I decided, involved their daughter. That would make the arrival of the tenants in their lives more poignant, and Jim more worried about his wife’s obsession with them. I wanted there to be a mystery, something unresolved, so perhaps the daughter had disappeared. Was she their only child, then? Hmm. Yes and no. There needed to be another layer of anguish and of complication. And so the shadow child was born. 

I sometimes say that if reading a book is more satisfying than watching the film-of-the-book, unless you’re after a quick fix with lots of the work done for you (imagining what the characters look like, picturing where the action happens), then writing a book is, in the same way, more satisfying than reading one, although slower and somewhat harder work. That’s exactly what writing The Shadow Child felt like. The questions I asked myself – I wonder what … I wonder why … I wonder how … – were exactly the questions you might ask before turning over the next page of a book you were reading, except that no one had worked out the answers for me. And sometimes it took weeks – sometimes it took several frustrating failed attempts – before the answers presented themselves. In fact, some of the answers didn’t emerge until the book was being edited, and other people got in on the act. That was such a thrill: having someone wise and experienced, someone who has worked with lots of famous authors, paying attention to the tale I had spun – but that’s another story.

Something people always ask writers is, do you plan your novels? I’ve made it sound as though I absolutely don’t, and that’s not entirely true. I’m a scientist by training, and I have little charts on my laptop showing what happens in every chapter. I even colour code them, sometimes, when there are multiple points of view to juggle and a formal structure to keep it all together (The Shadow Child is arranged into monthly sections, and there are five POV characters and several time frames – so it all took a bit of holding on to). What I don’t do is force myself to work out what’s going to happen before I’m ready. I explore. I set out across a piece of terrain and look for landmarks. When I can see what’s coming, I map it. I write screeds of notes, but they describe, or suggest, rather than prescribing. Cath has tried lots of hobbies and given them all up, I might write, or Perhaps Jim asks Nick for help with IT. That way, you leave space for things to fall into place. For you to discover what’s going to happen.

To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t write any other way. If I had to set down the whole plot of a novel in advance, before I’d got to know the characters or seen the twists and turns their lives might take, it would be a very dull thing. But in any case, if you’re going to share your story with people, I think it’s nice to have experienced it in the same way your readers will. To have had the excitement of wondering what’s coming next – and the pleasure of getting to the end and finding out how it all resolves. 

(c) Rachel Hancox

About The Shadow Child:

‘Weaves a beautiful, tense and compelling tale of relationships, of secrets, loss and grief, but ultimately of the power of love. I couldn’t put it down! Sam Blake

Eighteen-year-old Emma has loving parents and a promising future ahead of her.

So why, one morning, does she leave home without a trace?

Her parents, Cath and Jim, are devastated. They have no idea why Emma left, where she is – or even whether she is still alive.

A year later, Cath and Jim are still tormented by the unanswered questions Emma left behind, and clinging desperately to the hope of finding her.

Meanwhile, tantalisingly close to home, Emma is also struggling with her new existence – and with the trauma that shattered her life.

For all of them, reconciliation seems an impossible dream. Does the way forward lie in facing up to the secrets of the past – secrets that have been hidden for years?

Secrets that have the power to heal them, or to destroy their family forever.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Rachel Hancox read Medicine and Social and Political Science at Cambridge, qualified as a doctor three months after getting married, and has juggled her family, her career and a passion for writing ever since.
She worked in Paediatrics and Public Health for twenty years, writing short stories alongside NHS policy reports, and drafting novels during successive bouts of maternity leave.
Rachel loves singing, cooking, gardening and pottery, and has five children, three dogs and a cat. As someone once said, she thrives on chaos. She lives in Oxford with her husband and youngest children.

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