Saskia Sarginson: the inspiration behind ‘Without You’

‘I drew from my own patchwork family, made up of stepsiblings and half-siblings’

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 18:02

My second novel, Without You, is set in 1984, in Suffolk. Its anti-hero, Billy, is a young man running from a terrible mistake. He’s holding a 17-year old girl called Eva prisoner on an island off the coast.

Despite Billy’s actions, I wanted the reader to have sympathy for him; I needed to give him a reason to feel used, to feel angry and isolated, and to behave the way he does.

It came to me almost immediately that he could be a soldier, scarred from the conflict in Northern Ireland. When I was growing up during the 1970s, “the Troubles” were almost continually in the news. Eating our tea, with the black-and-white TV on, I’d hear the mantra: Belfast, Sinn Féin, IRA, paramilitary, republican. Reports of bomb explosions and casualties were delivered as sandwiches were eaten and plans made for the next day, an uncomfortable but familiar backdrop to our everyday existence. Yet nobody explained it to me. Perhaps I never asked.

Years later, with Billy to create, I needed to improve my sketchy knowledge of the conflict. For my research, I talked to a veteran of the Royal Fusiliers (the infantry regiment that completed more tours of duty in Northern Ireland than any other) and immersed myself in books about the period.

Billy is an outsider, and in many ways a major theme in the book is the stranger: the one who comes into your life to change it, like Billy, but also the strangers inside the people you think you know best. We can never really know another person completely, and this includes those closest to us. We are even strangers to ourselves sometimes.

Eva is a typical, rebellious teenager who feels that she doesn’t fit in and her parents don’t understand her, but when she’s kept captive, she finds out who she really is.

Eva’s family have no idea that Billy is holding her captive. The last time she was seen was during a storm at sea, when the boat she and her father were sailing capsized. They presume she drowned. The situation leads to heightened emotions of guilt, anger, grief; putting unbearable pressure on Eva’s parents.

Writing this fictional tragedy created dramatic tension, but also brought out the question of what family is. I wanted to explore where our sense of self comes from and how a family forms the identities of the people within it. I drew inspiration from my own patchwork family, made up of stepsiblings and half-siblings. I had a stepfather, and didn’t know who my biological father was until I was 16. I never met him, even though he’d lived just across the Channel all my life.

However, I did meet an older half-brother in Paris. It was fascinating meeting this blood relative, hearing his stories and seeing the similarities between us: the shape of our hands, and the colour of our eyes.

Yet, that didn’t make him my brother.

We spoke different languages. We had no shared background, no shared memories and experiences. It is this knowledge that binds you to another human being. So it’s the younger half-brother I spent my childhood with who is my real brother.

There’s no doubt that blood-ties are powerful, a long running spool going back through generations, pulling out character traits and recreating features, sinking us inside the history of a tribe. And yet, love does not necessarily come through the bond of blood. It comes through the connection between two spirits, through time and familiarity.

Eva’s sister, 10-year-old Faith, feels this connection with her sister strongly. No one believes her, but she is certain that Eva is still alive. Faith believes in mythological creatures, in the things we cannot see.

The Wild Man that Faith thinks has stolen her sister comes directly from a local Suffolk myth. Written evidence from the 1100s tells of a man dragged from the river at Orford. According to onlookers, the man was naked and covered with hair; he had webbed feet and made unintelligible noises. He was taken to the castle and kept prisoner, but he never spoke a word that anyone could understand. Eventually, he escaped back to the sea.

Faith believes that the same Wild Man exists inside the waters around their home, invisible and secretive as a seal. Faith herself stands for the power of intuition, for the unspoken and for things that cannot be proved, existing as they do beyond the limits of our knowledge.

The island where Billy is holding Eva captive is itself an important character in the book. It is based on Orford Ness, a fascinating spit of land that intersects the North Sea and a river. I imagined the real spit wearing away to create my fictional island.

The Ness is a large area of shingle and sand, mudflat and salt marsh that lies between the river and the North Sea. In 1913 the war department created airfields there for the experimental flying section. Since then it’s been used for top-secret experiments on a range of weapons, with hulking “pagodas” added in the 1950s to contain the blast from atomic weapons. Because the area was a bombing and rocket range, dangerous debris remains, including unexploded bombs.

It is a bleakly beautiful place, with shingle, lichen and grasses making a backdrop to rolls of rusting wire, crumbling concrete slabs and listing barns left behind by the military – and the distinctive and forbidding shapes of the pagodas themselves, visible from miles away.

The contours of the land are ever changing, as chunks of shingle are taken away and washed up by the tides. Hares, foxes and rabbits run under a huge sweep of open sky. Each winter there are battering winds from the North Sea, and always the cry of seabirds as they swoop over shingle and wave.

It is this haunting environment, this place of contradictions, that I imagined for my island; and it’s in one of the pagodas that Billy is keeping Eva. The menacing, windowless buildings are made of thick concrete walls. Inside, the lofty space is dim and dusty, and the roof, far above, is suspended on pillars. A design created to contain the force of an explosion.

There are deep pits inside the pagodas, originally intended as storage places for bombs. But Billy has found a different use for one of these pits.

The island is a constant presence in the book, not just as the setting for Eva and Billy; it lives inside Faith’s imagination. And it is always at the periphery of vision: a louring shape crouched on the horizon.

Islands in fiction are often magical places. Just think of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. They provide intense environments where life is lived in a heighted and distilled way, as in Golding’s Lord of The Flies. This is true of the island in my novel. It’s a place where the rules and timings of normal life cease to exist, and where the unexpected can happen.

Without You by Saskia Sarginson is published this month by Piatkus, £7.99

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