In The Spotlight: Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses

>In The Spotlight: Kate Atkinson's One Good TurnHello, All

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

22 Comments

Filed under Our Trespasses, Steph Avery

22 responses to “In The Spotlight: Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses

  1. I haven’t read it, but it sounds intriguing. I grew up during the “Beatlemania” craze (but in the U.S.), and remember well the cultural changes. Then it was off to Vietnam and even bigger changes. You sure have my curiosity peaked, Margot–now I have to go find a copy! 🙂

    • Thanks, Michael. Everyone’s different, of course, but I saw quite a strong presence of the culture of the times and that place. Not the ‘frolicking fun’ of magazine covers, but (at least in my opinion) a more gritty, honest look. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. This sounds great! I like mysteries, but sometimes a book like this which is more the story of a crime and its consequences is a good change. And, as you say, that period was a real time of change, especially for women. I fear this must be added to the wishlist…

    • Well, as far as the list goes, FictionFan, turnabout and all that… 😉 – I think you’ve put it quite well, too: it really is more about crime, consequences, decisions people take, and so on than it is about a criminal investigation. You’re right, too, that that period really was a time of change. And that feeling does come across in the book. If you do read this, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. This seems more of an insight into a particular place and time – tempting, tempting!

  4. Sounds fascinating, Margot. Just this week, I re-watched the film ‘Quadrophenia’ about the Mods, set in the same era (1965). ‘Our Trespasses’ sounds like the perfect companion piece.

    Do I need any more books on my TBR pile, though? Get thee behind me, Satan!!! 😉

    • Bwahahahaha…. 😉 Quadrophenia is a great film, in my opinion, Angela. I hope you enjoyed it. And this book really does discuss the same era and the same sorts of people. If you do get the chance to read it, I really hope you’ll like it, too.

      • I’d seen Quadrophenia as a teen because Sting was in it(!). But I got a lot more out of it on second viewing, Margot, and agree that it’s a great, gritty film. I will look up Our Trespasses, as my partner in life/crime writing is also interested in this era.

  5. Col

    Not read it yet Margot, but it’s on the kindle and is getting moved up the pile!

  6. This sounds like a fascinating read. Another interesting book to add to my ever-growing list TBR. Thanks, Margot. 🙂

  7. Margot, I don’t fancy period novels though I don’t mind reading them if they are more atmospheric rather than about an old crime and its investigation in present day. I do like atmosphere in crime fiction even if there is a broad hint or even outright revelation of who the culprit is.

    • I know what you mean, Prashant, about atmosphere in novels. I like that very much, too. And there really is a difference between getting a sense of a place and time, and an old crime being investigated in modern day. They’re two different sorts of novels, aren’t they?

  8. This setting sounds really interesting to me, for several different reasons: I’m definitely making a note of it.

  9. If a book doesn’t focus on the criminal investigation, is it called a certain sub-genre of crime? I almost wondered if focusing on the people would make the book a psychological novel instead of crime. It’s interesting that you mentioned the clothes, make-up, and music of London in the 1960s. I recently saw The Conjuring 2, and it takes place in that same setting. The clothes, hair styles, and furniture were a feast for the eyes (even if the focus was supposed to be a ghost, lol).

    • You ask an interesting question, GtL! There are a lot of sub-genres of crime fiction. (PI, Police Procedural, Psychological Suspense, Golden Age, etc..). And sometimes the line between what counts as a psychological novel and what counts as a crime novel is quite blurred. I’ve read plenty of crime fiction that doesn’t focus as much on the investigation. And of course, plenty where the focus is only on the investigation, and not on the characters. Crime fiction is a wide genre.

      Interesting, too, that you’d mention The Conjuring 2. I’ll admit I’ve not seen that one, although I’ve seen trailers, etc.. That context really is terrific for films and books, isn’t it?

  10. tracybham

    I do like novels that take a different approach, Margot. This one sounds very good.

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