HE SAID/SHE SAID is my fifth novel. Sending new work into the world is never easy, but this feels like the most personal, important story I have ever told, and I’m nervous for reasons that have nothing to do with sales figures or reviews.
Like my other books, it’s a psychological thriller. Crime fiction is usually a euphemism for murder mystery, but this book deals with a different kind of crime. For all that it grabs the headlines, murder is not commonplace. Sexual violence, though? We live this every day. Rape culture is on your radar, as a woman, before you know what sex means. From the nursery school teacher who tells you the boys only hit you because they like you, to the first time you get the bus on your own and your mum teaches you how to use your housekeys as a knuckleduster. Later, there’s the near-miss with the minicab driver, the man on the dancefloor, your oldest male friend. One in five, that’s the statistic. Twenty women, then, on my packed tube carriage this morning. Maybe two dozen out of the smiling mums at the school gates this afternoon.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the way criminal justice repeatedly fails victims of sex crimes. The book grew, as they always do, not from the headlines but from one vivid scene. Cornwall, 1999, at a festival to mark the total solar eclipse. In the eerie half-dark aftermath, Laura interrupts a man and a woman. Months later, she finds herself the star witness at a rape trial, her ordeal second only to the victim’s own. Her doubts only creep in after the verdict. Here, the question is not whodunnit but did he really do it?
I felt uneasy in using rape as the engine of a plot in a way that I never have about murder. False allegations of rape are vanishingly rare. But they do happen. Writing HE SAID/SHE SAID, I had to overcome my – and Laura’s – gut instinct to side with the woman first and ask questions later.
I have never felt such responsibility to real-life victims. I spoke to rape survivors and a man who’d been acquitted of rape. I sat through a serial voyeurism trial where the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming and the victims’ videotaped testimonies had me in tears. Even so, the senior prosecuting barrister’s experience and charisma were so superior to the stuttering junior defending that I came close to changing my mind. This became key to Laura’s experience in the book. It’s one reason I set the crime during a total eclipse. We can never see the whole picture: something – and someone – is always in the dark.
ERIN KELLY is the author of HE SAID/SHE SAID, THE POISON TREE, THE SICK ROSE, THE BURNING AIR, THE TIES THAT BIND and BROADCHURCH: THE NOVEL. Born in London in 1976, she lives in north London with her husband and daughters.
The Silent Patient is Maximum Sentence’s book of the month for February. We guarantee you’ll be buying it once you’ve read to the bottom of this list.