Happy International Women’s Day! I’m so excited that my debut novel, Exhibit Alexandra, is out today because the themes at the heart of the novel are gender, motherhood, female ambition and sacrifice.
I’ve spent eight years writing and rewriting this book, but what was there from the very beginning was Alexandra. I knew who she was and I knew what had happened to her. The tricky part was trying to figure out how to tell her story: how to write about a woman who is both good and bad, who loves her family but misses her freedom, who is happy with her husband but keeps secrets from him too. The beauty of fiction is that it allows us to explore these contradictions, to poke at the thoughts we know we probably shouldn’t have, the ones we bury even from ourselves. Essentially, I felt, I was trying to write a real woman, one full of flaws who readers might struggle to feel fully sympathetic towards, but who – like all of us – is simply trying to work out how to be happy.
I was in my mid-twenties when I began this novel. Living with a partner for the first time, I was learning about love, commitment and domesticity. I’d also finished studying and was negotiating that weird transition phase from passionate, optimistic student to practical adulthood. Life was hedonistic and joyful, but also not quite as large, creative or full of potential as I’d once imagined it would be. Learning how to be an adult, how to be a girlfriend, how to be a wife and how to be a woman has often, to me, felt like a process of simultaneous expansion and narrowing.
In Exhibit Alexandra, I’ve tried to explore both what is gained and what is lost in motherhood and marriage. The great strength of the crime genre, I think, is its ability to present us with a world we recognise – a world that is almost mundane in its familiarity – and then to utterly destabilise it. Whether it’s a murder, a missing person, a violent act or any other kind of mystery, by wrenching characters from their normal lives we are forced to pay attention to those normal lives. It is only through Alexandra’s disappearance that we (and her husband) begin to consider what might have been going on before she went missing.
Alexandra is a difficult character. I warn you now, some of you will hate her. I hope some of you will love her too, and that even more of you will find yourselves a little confused and unsettled by the complexity of your feelings towards her.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Alexandra is a feminist. She’s been trying to raise two feminist daughters. She’s been trying to prioritise both her family and her career. Like we are all told to, she’s been trying to have it all.
But one day she vanishes on her way home from work. And that’s when she must calculate the true cost of having it all.