"I’m emotionally nosy about people, I think. I want to know what their story is," says Hannah Beckerman. A woman who wears many hats, she is well known to the trade as a chair at literary festivals and events, and she also reviews books for the Observer and the Sunday Express. But when we meet in a café in West London, it is to talk about her second novel, If Only I Could Tell You (February), which Orion is pitching as upmarket women’s fiction for fans of Jojo Moyes.
If Only I Could Tell You has at its heart a devastating family secret which has deeply affected three generations of women: matriarch Audrey; her two daughters Jess and Lily; and their respective daughters, Mia and Phoebe. The novel opens with a seemingly innocuous scene. It is a Thursday morning in June 1988 and Jess is 10 years old, waiting in the hallway for her teenage sister, Lily, so they can walk to school together. But then Jess decides to climb the stairs, and catches Lily coming out of the spare bedroom with a guilty expression on her face. She refuses to let Jess go into the room, or reveal what she has seen. Beckerman writes of Jess: "She does not know it yet, but by the time she gets home this afternoon, the fabric of her family will have been altered irrevocably, and the morning’s events will repeat in her mind like a record stuck under the groove of a needle for the next 30 years."
It is a compelling opening, hinting at a long-buried family secret, and Beckerman takes the full length of the novel to reveal the full significance of that scene. The narrative moves to the present day, where Jess and Lily are grown women, completely estranged from each other as a result of that long-ago morning. Not only is their sisterly relationship non-existent, but their teenage daughters have never been allowed to meet, either. But everything is about to change, because Audrey, their ageing mother, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the one thing she wants to do before she dies is
to bring her splintered family back together before it is too late.
"I’ll be amazed if I ever write a novel that isn’t about family," says Beckerman, a notably articulate interviewee. "I know lots of people are slightly sniffy about novels about family. But to my mind the family is the place where we learn the template for all of our future relationships, for good or for bad... [I find it] inherently fascinating."
It becomes clear that Jess is behind the estrangement with her sister, and throughout the novel the reader is constantly wondering what on earth Lily could have done when she was a young teenager that was so terrible, and so lasting. "So much of the book is about the way we interpret things differently. The same situations can be perceived completely differently, depending on the prism through which you are viewing them," says Beckerman.
The 10-year-old Jess has interpreted events a certain way. "If you’re a child and you don’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw, you do just tend to fill them in yourself. One of the key themes of the book is the toxicity of secrets and how things that are repressed will always find their way out—somewhere—into the narrative of the family," says Beckerman. "It might be in people’s behaviours, it might be in relationships, it might be in individuals acting out in a particular ways... but those repressed stories will always find their way out. So what I really wanted to do was explore how that toxicity affects each character in the novel, including the generation of girls who weren’t even alive when these things happened."
If Only I Could Tell You is cleverly structured and there is a half-point twist which changes everything—"compelling" is the word most used in the advance blurbs that adorn the cover of the novel’s proof copies—which Beckerman puts down to the "hard graft of endless redrafts". The final novel, she reckons, has been through 24 drafts in total. When commissioning editor Harriet Bourton acquired the book for Orion in May 2017, it was draft number 16. The role of the editor has come under fire recently—the Man Booker Prize judges were very critical of the editing of some of this year’s submissions—but Beckerman describes Bourton’s role as "transformative" in moving around the events of the novel to create "the sense of being slightly disorientated as to what is going on and whose version of reality is the right one."
Putting in the hours
It is Beckerman’s second novel, although Orion will be taking it to market as if it were a début. Her first, The Dead Wife’s Handbook, was published in 2014 by Penguin. It sold a modest number and the writer acknowledges, honestly: "If I was writing it now, I would write it in a very different way". In the four years since the publication of her début, she says she has written "a lot that hasn’t worked". She reckons she has probably put in Malcolm Gladwell’s fabled 10,000 hours, which has resulted in a much more finely crafted novel. "When you have your first novel published, you are quite naïve. You don’t understand the industry that well. You think that getting a book deal means you’ve won the literary lottery and that it’s all going to happen. But obviously, for 999 out of 1,000 books, that isn’t going to happen. Very few début novels actually punch through. So then you have to go back to the beginning and think, ‘Well if I haven’t been one of those bestselling début novelists, what kind of a writer do I want to be?’"
Writing a novel is one thing but—as she is well aware, from her experience chairing events at literary festivals—authors are now expected to go out and promote it too. The rise of the literary festival as part of the promotional circuit has been unstoppable in recent years. Beckerman sees a link with social media platforms: "I don’t know if [social media] has raised the expectation of audiences to want to have more real-life interaction with authors they are reading, or whether it’s the opposite: that so much of our interaction is happening digitally and online now that the desire to spend some time in a room listening to a real person talk has grown." Her secret to chairing a successful event? Being a swot, she says, with a laugh. "I write out four times as many questions as I could possibly get through. Then I learn it like a script, so at any point I can go anywhere with the conversation."
Next February, Beckerman will be on the other side of the stage, talking about her novel with its themes of grief, guilt and suppressed family secrets. But, she says, "I hope there are also moments of joy, and that you get to the end of the book with a sense of emotional closure, and an uplifting sense that even the worst situations are open to resolution."
It is a Thursday morning and Jess is walking up the stairs even though she has no need; she has already brushed her teeth and pulled her hair into some semblance of a ponytail. Her schoolbag is leaning against the umbrella stand by the front door and in a few minutes, she and Lily will meet in the hallway and begin making their way to school.
Later—many years later—Jess will speculate that somehow she knew, somehow she sensed what was happening: an inexplicable sisterly intuition compelling her to investigate.
As she reaches the top of the stairs, Lily is coming out of the spare bedroom. Her back is turned towards Jess and she closes the door quietly—reverentially almost—her hands clasped around either side of the handle. Jess watches Lily take in a long, deep breath that she seems to hold in her chest for an impossible length of time before letting it out slowly, steadily.
‘What are you doing?’
Lily jumps round, her face flushed, eyes darting from left to right as if scrabbling to get her bearings.
‘Why are you creeping up on me like that?’ Lily hisses at her in an angry whisper that does not sound like her sister’s usual voice. There is a moment of uncertainty between them, neither of them knowing what Jess’ next move will be.