You can’t have a proper relationship with someone if you can’t be open with them. Rachel and her sister Imogen have discovered this…
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of an exciting new novel: Façade by Helen Matthews.
My review is followed by an interview with the author.
Family secrets abound in this thrilling saga, and they’re revealed to us at different stages of the novel. Rachel is the one who has had to shoulder the most secrets, causing rifts between her and those closest to her. But even she has more to discover. Her older sister, Imogen, has been sheltered from a lot. Why is that? Being kept in the dark has fired her jealousy; she was always wild and selfish. The biggest secret of all, the truth about Rachel’s and Imogen’s brother, is mentioned throughout the book, but only revealed at the end. And it wasn’t what I was expecting.
This novel has taught me a lot about careful plotting. It has also made me rethink the secrets in my own family and the way they affected me. Nothing quite as dramatic, although Imogen did remind me of someone.
Façade is a gripping story, highly recommended.
Hello, Helen, and welcome to the blog. You are new to Crooked Cat / Darkstroke, but you’re not a new author. Can you tell us briefly about your other books?
Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Miriam, and for reading and reviewing Façade. I’m thrilled to know you enjoyed it.
Façade is actually my third novel. My debut, published in 2017, was After Leaving the Village – a suspense thriller about human trafficking and modern slavery. I’m often asked how I came to write about such a dark and gritty subject but once I hit on the idea it wouldn’t leave me. I should add that the story is realistic and I couldn’t entirely shy away from the violence but it is not gratuitous.
I’m interested in how someone’s life can change in an instant: one poor decision, trusting the wrong person, or being desperate to escape from poverty can spark a chain of events. My main character in After Leaving the Village, is seventeen-year-old Odeta, from a village in Albania. She’s left school and is working in her father’s shop. Her life isn’t especially grim, but it’s dull. She knows there’s a big world out there and, when an enigmatic stranger walks into the shop and offers to take her to London to start a new career, she jumps at the chance. Her life is about to change, but not in the way she expected.
I wanted readers to stand in Odeta’s shoes and really get to know her and recognise that she’s an ordinary woman – just like you or me or one of our daughters. I didn’t want her to be a one-dimensional character or a stereotypical victim.
While researching my novel, I discovered a charity called Unseen, that works to support survivors of modern slavery. They answered my research questions, fact-checked the novel for me and their Director wrote a Foreword for the book. I’m now an Ambassador for the charity.
My second novel Lies Behind the Ruin, published in April 2019, is also psychological suspense but it’s not about human trafficking. It’s domestic noir about a family who flee overwhelming problems in England and escape to France to renovate a derelict property. The main part of the story is set in and around Limoges with authentic detail of the city and nearby villages which, I hope, shows some of the magic of France and explains why people crave a simpler life. Emma and Paul Ashby and their children are a ‘blended family’ and face heartbreak when they make the move because Emma’s son from her first marriage refuses to come. But their challenges aren’t the everyday ones that impact all would-be ex-pats because their marriage is beset by secrets and lies. Once these problems escalate, both their dream of a new life, and their daughter Mollie’s safety, are at risk because – how can you build a new life on toxic foundations?
What about Façade? How does it compare to your previous novels?
Façade is psychological suspense, like my previous novels, but it’s standalone. I’ve never wanted to write a sequel or a series because I always have new ideas, new characters, and new worlds to explore. If I tried to reopen a story with some of the same characters from a previous novel, I’m not sure I could make it fresh.
The story of Façade opens in 1999 when the main characters, Rachel and her sister, Imogen, are still in their teens and their baby brother drowns at the family home The Old Rectory. Grief shatters the family except for Imogen, who escapes to live abroad with her musician boyfriend, Simon, who she later marries. Fast forward twenty years and Simon dies in a mysterious accident in Ibiza. Imogen returns, bitter and resentful and determined to reclaim from her family what she believes should be hers. The carefully constructed veneer that has kept the lid on secrets and held the family back from disintegrating begins to shatter and Rachel and her teenaged daughter, Hannah face unexpected loss and danger.
I always try to make my novels multi-layered. On the surface, I hope readers will find them gripping page turners with multiple mysteries to be solved but, for book club discussion, and those who like to reflect on what they read, there are deeper underlying themes. In Façade these include memory, property and houses, and the meaning of home.
Your novels all sound fascinating. Why did you choose that genre?
It seems amusing to me now but, when I started writing novels (including ones I’ve abandoned), I just thought I was writing ‘a book’. I didn’t understand about genre and how important it is for a publisher to be able to target readers, who might enjoy your book. I had to learn fast! A few years ago I won a novel competition and had a one-to-one with a big five publisher. They told me my book was ‘high end women’s fiction with book club potential’ so I was surprised when my publisher categorised After Leaving the Village as a ‘suspense thriller’, which is a sub-division of crime. Since then, I’ve gravitated more towards writing psychological suspense and have read widely in the genre so I can learn from the masters. Early exponents of this were authors like Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, and Barbara Vine but it’s had a huge boost in popularity in the last ten years since Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train were published. I read widely in the suspense genre to understand the tropes and what works, what doesn’t. Some hugely successful novels are deceptively simple, like Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris, which was a massive million-selling best seller (and is very clever) but others are more literary, such as The Wych Elm by Tana French and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – both excellent books.
Psychological suspense suits me because I’m not so interested in violent and gory deaths or in the painstaking work the police undertake to solve a murder. I don’t mind a bit of terror but I’d rather this was in the character’s and reader’s heads. I prefer writing about flawed characters, people who make mistakes or bad choices and, if their life experiences have made them sociopathic, so much the better. I’m fascinated by that too. Personally, I don’t have a problem reading about unlikeable characters but that can be a challenge for a novelist because you have to keep your readers interested in a flawed character, even if they don’t sympathise with them.
Your bio says, “She fled corporate life.” Why was that?
After a degree in English, I went travelling, then joined the British Council as a graduate trainee. Working on the educational and cultural side of international development was intellectually stimulating and satisfying but quite badly paid so I changed direction. Later on, that turned out to be a good thing because my husband was made redundant and I became my family’s breadwinner while he looked after the children and ran a small business he fitted in around them. I ended up in the Energy industry where my specialisms were HR, Employee Benefits and Pensions. I always wrote fiction in any spare time – late at night or when I was on holiday. In my day job, I did a lot of writing: reports, legal documents, strategy papers and financial analysis. I found it was sapping my creativity and turning my prose into business speak. So, for a few years, I stopped writing short stories and novels and turned to writing articles instead. My freelance journalism was published in a few newspapers and lifestyle magazines. A highlight was recording some columns I wrote about family life for a BBC Radio programme called Home Truths, presented by the late and lovely John Peel.
As every author knows, if you don’t write it makes you unhappy so, once my children were older, I decided to quit my job and go back to university to study for an MA in Creative Writing. I don’t believe writers need to do a course like this – there are other paths – but, for me, it was because I needed to get my imaginative writing back on track after years of working for big companies. It wasn’t possible to give up paid work altogether, so I carried on with consultancy alongside my studies and, over the next few years, gradually switched to freelance copywriting, which fits in well with writing fiction.
Tell us about the charity, Unseen. How does it go about eliminating slavery from the world?
Unseen is a small UK charity with a big reach and is dedicated to working towards a world without slavery.
Unseen runs the UK’s national Anti-slavery Helpline where victims, survivors and concerned members of the public can get help and advice 24/7. They run safe houses for women survivors and for men. These aren’t just hostels but places where survivors get medical and psychological support and counselling to help their recovery. They run outreach schemes to help people who have been resettled in the community. They are also working on a project to support child victims of trafficking, which is a particularly tricky area. A high proportion of children rescued from slavery and placed in local authority care abscond and return to their trafficker because they don’t get the specialist support they need.
Unseen also provides training for employers, police forces and medical professionals to help them recognise the signs of slavery and they give advice to government to help them formulate strategies and legislation.
I make a monthly payment to sponsor a room in a safe house. Since becoming an Ambassador for Unseen, I’ve raised over £2,000 from donating a small percentage of my book royalties and from my author talk fees.
Thanks for featuring me, Miriam. It’s been fun answering your questions.
Thanks for answering them, Helen.
The publication date for Façade is 17 September 2020.
Pre-order it on Amazon.
Find out more about and get in touch with Helen at:
website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook