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Primrose Hill: A Novel in Search of a Genre – For a Second Time

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Article by Helen Falconer ©.
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Everybody loved it. My agent, my editor, my teenage son, all his mates, all my mates. They loved it. The Sunday Times loved it. The Guardian loved it. The New York Times loved it. Marie Claire loved it. Face magazine loved it. It filled the main display window at the Virgin Records Store in Oxford St, in London. They loved it.

Primrose Hill was published by Faber in (posh) paperback back in 2000, it was published in hardback and paperback in the US too, (& Germany and Italy IIRC). It was reissued in the UK by Faber in trade paperback around 2001.

One of my favourite authors, the late Alan Sillitoe wrote of it simply: “In a word: Brilliant.’’

My career as a writer was about to take off. Friends I hadn’t seen in years looked me up. I could actually begin to think about quitting my job and writing full time. There was talk of film options, translations and foreign contracts.

It was vindication of all the work – when I came home from work, at weekends and during holidays, and oh the sacrifices I had made and those my familty made for me. Here was the proof that it was worth it. It was not a selfish fantasy.

Primrose Hill is a very posh part of London squeezed between Camden and Kilburn: Rock stars and supermodels live in houses not half a mile from working class flats and housing estates. Cheek by jowl with Ritzy London, there is wretched London. It was ever thus. Charles Dickens would be right at home there.

The story of Primrose Hill came from a story told to me by my 15-year-old son about a friend of his. This boy was being raised by his grandparents because his young mother was lost in a world of drug abuse. My son told me that his friend – I called him Danny – feared for his mother’s life. Danny believed she would end up dead at the hands of her violent boyfriend – a man who was also her drug dealer. Danny thought the only way to save her from this was to kill his mum’s boyfriend.

Teenagers see moral dilemmas in terms as clear as mountain spring water. Their moral clarity hasn’t yet clouded over, as ours does as we get older and “wiser”. They are also very, very funny, as any parent of teenagers will tell you.

In my novel, Danny seeks help from his closest friend Si, the narrator (“If it hadn’t been for Aids we’d’ve been blood brothers”).

The scene thus set against a backdrop of a scorching hot London summer, the plot pretty much roars off on its own – apart from Eleanor, that is. (“Eleanor was mad – seriously mad. She was driven by a mighty force I didn’t understand, like a little boat being blown along in a big wind. I shouldn’t have got tied up with her at all, but I did.”)

When my agent took it to Faber, they loved it ­– I held my breath in anticipation of what was about to break over me…

helen_falconer140x210That was 2000. I have long since exhaled and now breathe more easily as I look back at what should have been – what everyone said would be – my breakthrough novel.

What went wrong?

Was it the work itself?

Well, not according to the reviews.

Here’s what The Guardian said:

‘I simply couldn’t put the book down. Falconer shows as superb a command of structure and pacing as she does of character. Intense, intelligent and highly readable, Primrose Hill is a book of which any experienced novelist could be proud. As Falconer’s debut it’s stunning. My hat is off.’

The New York Times said: ‘Gritty and profane in the best senses, Primrose Hill owes an obvious debt to Alex Garland’s tropical-paradise-lost classic, The Beach. Each novel sets its oblivious protagonist in heaven before unleashing a swarm of devils. Primrose Hill itself gets a little colder, darker and scarier each time Si returns to it, and Falconer’s novel achieves a thrilling momentum based almost entirely on Si’s dawning moral awareness.’

And there was more where that came from. Kirkus Reviews called it a “firecracker”.

However there was one problem that most people involved agreed on – the lack of a clear genre. There was no ready-made pigeon hole for Primrose Hill.

It’s part crime thriller, part comedy. It’s a coming of age story. It’s a lot about parenting in a world post nuclear family. It’s what used to be called a ripping yarn! But some said it was too old for teenagers and too teenage-oriented for adults. It was urban, very urban. There’s bad language, drug and sexual abuse and, of course, it’s mainly about murder.

In the days before social networking it circulated around schools in London like wildfire – but in typical teenage fashion just one well-thumbed copy was passed around between friends.

A lot has changed in the industry since then.

The end of the Net Book Agreement has forced mainstream traditional publishers to concentrate resources on books that they can be sure will earn a return for them.

New authors, cross-genre books and the difficult-to-categorise works are pushed aside in the struggle to stay afloat.

But alongside that was the emergence of the ebook. A new marketplace and, more recently, newly emerging genres. Of course, there’s no one to hold your hand. The range of expertise a good agent or publisher could bring to bear on a new talent is not available and has to be sought out by the pioneers of the new frontiers. But that is happening now as a new industry opens up to new writers with services like Inkwell.

Amazon and iTunes, Kobo and the rest will be happy to sell your book (for a cut) but they won’t champion your work to the newspaper reviewers and bookshop buyers, or advise you, edit you, talk you down from a panic attack, put you in touch with others in the same field or invite you to the office Christmas party.  But more important than this they offer authors a new way to reach their audience.

Although I didn’t realise it when I started writing it, Primrose Hill was not written for the bookshop-perusing reader of traditional genre. It was about the reality of the strange and hostile world inhabited by our teenage child-adults. I didn’t have a reader “type” in mind.

In my case it’s a chance – a second chance – to send Primrose Hill out again into a much changed world, a world where “young adult”  has a meaning and, hopefully,  a market.

So here we go, time to hit the trail again.

Me and the crowd were hanging on Primrose Hill, playing music, smoking a bit of draw, watching the brilliant sun go down, made blazing colours by the polluted air. And we were having this heavy discussion about how terrible it all was, global warming and that, but I was laughing because we were basking in it, man – day after day, all July, sunning ourselves on the burning hill – tropical London! I was feeling good, when Danny ran out of the beautiful sky and threw himself gasping on the ground beside me.

“I’m going to kill that fucker.”

I didn’t need to ask. All the good feeling went out of the evening, like a separate sun suddenly going down….

(c) Helen Falconer


Helen Falconer’s website is at www.helenfalconer.net Primrose Hill is now available from Amazon on Kindle, from iTunes for iPad and in all ebook formats. You can rate and/or review Primrose Hill on Goodreads.

Helen forms part of The Inkwell Group consultancy team, helping new authors to improve their books and moving them closer to publication, click the link to find out how she could help you.

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