Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A great deal of crime fiction places an emphasis on the investigation of the crime that’s at the heart of the novel. But plenty of crime fiction takes another approach, and places the focus on the impact of a crime on the people involved, sometimes years later. That’s the sort of novel Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
One day, the police at one of the South London stations receive a strange anonymous letter. In it, the author confesses to the murder of a vagrant whose body was found on the tracks at an underground station. There’s not very much that the police can do with such a letter, and there’s no telling if it’s genuine. But we soon learn that it is.
The story behind the letter begins in 1966 South East London, a time of Mods, Rockers, and all sorts of experimentation. Teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan are sheltered, but they’re fascinated with the fashions, the music, and the culture. They want to experience it for themselves, so one Friday night, they wangle their mother’s permission to go to the Palais Royale to dance. Her condition is that their cousin Jimmy must take them there and bring them back. Since Jimmy is ‘cool,’ the girls agree and excitedly prepare for their big night.
At first, it’s an exciting adventure. But it’s not long before things change. What happens that night ends up having repercussions that change the girls’ lives forever (I know, it sounds cliché, but it really is accurate in this case).
This isn’t a ‘typical’ crime novel (is there one, really?), in that there isn’t really a criminal investigation. So we don’t follow a sleuth as she or he goes about finding out the truth about a murder or other crime. Rather, it’s the story of one night, and how the events of it impact the lives of just about everyone involved. Readers who prefer crime novels where there’s a murder (or set of murders), a police investigation, and a resulting arrest, will notice this.
And that’s evident in the structure of the story. The novel begins with the anonymous letter, and then moves back in time to 1966, and the story of what led to that night, and what resulted from it. Readers who prefer novels to have a chronological structure will notice this. That said, though, the different time periods are clearly marked, so it’s easy to tell when the action is taking place.
The story is largely told from the perspectives of Bridie, Midge and Jimmy. So we get to learn quite a bit about them and their families. Bridie and Midge are what used to be called ‘nice girls,’ who’ve been brought up in a working-class Irish Catholic family. But there the similarities between them end. Beyond their differences in appearance, they have quite different temperaments. Midge, the younger sister, is more adventurous, and much less devoted to the Catholic tradition. In fact, she questions much of it – and of all religion – privately. For her part, Bridie is devoutly observant, and believes all of the Catholic dogma. Both sisters are devoted to their family and to each other; as the older sister, Bridie in particular feels a sense of responsibility to look after Midge.
As for Jimmy, he’s what used to be called ‘wayward.’ He has a job, but he supplements his income with other ‘business enterprises.’ He’s older than Bridie and Midge, and much more streetwise. In fact, he tries to dissuade them from going to the Palais, because he knows the kinds of things that go on there. He’s not at all religious, but he does have a sense of family obligation.
Each of these characters is deeply affected by what happens at the Palais, and we see a clear demarcation between ‘before that night,’ and ‘after that night.’ Readers who are interested in the long-term impact of life-changing events will appreciate this.
A great deal of the novel’s action takes place in 1966/67 South East London, and that setting and context form important elements in this novel. The late 1960’s were a very different time, especially for girls and young women, and that’s woven through the story. So is the atmosphere of drug experimentation, sexual liberation, and the other major changes that were taking place in that place at that time. There are mentions made of the popular music, too. And there’s some mention of the clothes, makeup and other fashions of the time. Readers who are interested in life in working-class London during those years will appreciate this.
This was, in some ways, a dangerous time, and that’s also woven through the novel. This isn’t a ‘remember-when,’ coming-of-age romp. There is grit, and Avery offers an uncompromising look at some of the risks. Readers who prefer light, easy-to-read crime fiction will notice this. Along those lines, this isn’t really a novel with what you could call a happy ending. Life changes drastically for all those involved, and Avery doesn’t make light of that. That said, though, the novel isn’t hopelessly bleak. For some of the characters, life goes on, and is even good. That doesn’t change what happens, though.
Our Trespasses is the story of two teenagers negotiating the exciting and dangerous world of the pivotal late 1960s. Its focus is one life-changing night, and the effect of what happens that night on everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Our Trespasses? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 1 August/Tuesday, 2 August – Shield of Straw – Kazuhiro Kiuchi
Monday, 8 August/Tuesday, 9 August – State Fair – Earlene Fowler
Monday, 15 August/Tuesday, 16 August – The Dinner – Herman Koch