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.

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