Three years ago, writer Julie Myerson was researching a book retracing the life of Mary Yelloly, who as a child in the 1820s painted an album of detailed watercolours which still survive, but who died of tuberculosis a few short years later at the age of 21. It was intended as an opportunity for Myerson to explore a theme which recurs in her novels and non-fiction—what remains after our lives, and the traces left by people from the past.
Yet while she got up every morning to get on with her work, in the background Myerson's life was in turmoil. Her teenage son had become addicted to the powerful form of cannabis "skunk", which can induce mental health problems.
Family life had become hellish; her son was abusive and sometimes violent, dropping out of school. The Myersons worried about the effects on their two younger children. Eventually, in early 2006, they took an anguished decision to give the boy an ultimatum—behave, or leave home. And, just turned 17, he left. Later they changed the locks to stop him coming back.
Unsurprisingly, Myerson hit a brick wall with her writing. One day, sitting at her screen, she found herself writing, not about Yelloly, but about her son. "It worried me," she explains. " I felt I couldn't possibly publish a book about him. I said to Jonathan [Myerson, her husband], ‘I don't know what to do. I'm finding I can only write the Mary book if I write about our son as well.' He said: ‘Just write the book, then we'll look at it, then we'll panic, then we'll decide what to do.'"
The result is The Lost Child (Bloomsbury, 4th May), in which the twin stories of Yelloly and Myerson's son interweave. In one strand, the writer hunts for what she can uncover of Mary's short life in a family ravaged by illness, from letters and portraits to Mary's own burial place, creating a vivid imaginative contact with the long-dead girl. In the other, Myerson recounts the transformation of the calm, loving child she remembered, under the alienating effects of drug addiction. The two strands explore, as she puts it, the different ways in which you can lose your children.
Poised and elegant, her face familiar from countless appearances on BBC2's "Newsnight Review", it is hard to associate Myerson with the ugly, aggressive scenes of family discord she describes. She admits to feeling very sensitive about the book's publication, not least because the events it describes are recent. It took some stern words from her agent, Gill Coleridge, to persuade her to do publicity. "You want to have written it and then say: ‘Go away everyone, I'm not going to talk about it.' But my agent said to me: ‘If you publish it, you've got to stand by it,' and she's right."
It is "by far" the most exposing thing she has produced. "I've written about us behaving in ways I suppose one wouldn't want other people to know about, but obviously I had to. If I was going to be honest about our son I couldn't possibly not be honest about Jonathan and myself." Her son read the manuscript and asked for some small corrections, she says, but did not otherwise object.
One of the reasons Myerson did go ahead with publishing was that she feels strongly that people need to understand the dangers. She talks about it like a loss of innocence: "People need to know this happens to families like ours. We were very smug, we loved having young children, and as they got older we thought we were going to be very good parents of teenagers. We informed them about ecstasy, we educated them about sex, very upfront, lots of family discussions round the table. This thing just came and hit us, almost out of nowhere. When we were in our darkest, loneliest place, it would have been helpful to read a book like this."
The ultimatum that Myerson gave her son was the most difficult thing she had ever done in her life, she says. "If someone had told us years ago that we would be in that position, it would have been unthinkable. I still suspect that a lot of parents who haven't had experience of drugs will find it hard to read that part and sympathise with us."
The Lost Child ends on a moment of tenderness between Myerson and her boy, a touch of optimism. So are things resolved now? "I don't want to imply there is a full resolution—there isn't. The only thing I would say is that the wonderful thing about life is that things do change and move on." Her voice warms: "There are so many good things about this boy—he's an artist and a writer, he understands you have to write what you write. He was very sweet [about the book]." But the pain remains: "Even looking at baby photographs is painful, so I don't. It has tinged everything."