A Book of Ideas
The Slipping Place is a darkly suspenseful murder mystery, and a compulsive page-turner, but it also a multi-layered novel, with ideas that will stay with you long after the murderer has been identified.
A Mystery About Mystery
In all my work I am fascinated by the nature of mystery itself, the place of the unknown in everyday life, the way we struggle and fail to understand the world, each other and even ourselves. In The Slipping Place, neither the detective figure, Veronica, nor eventually the murderer, can articulate clearly why they are acting the way they do.
Veronica and her son, Roland, both make art in an attempt to express things they cannot really understand. The book also features a shadowy secondhand bookshop, with a proprietor who speaks in quotations, some accurate, others not, in a way that obscures her meaning even as she tries to communicate it. Roland is drawing half-remembered characters drawn from nineteenth century literature. Again his meaning is not clear.
Characters try and fail to understand each other. Veronica is never clear about what actions she should be taking, but charges on, determined to do something, while things are revealed around her. Even at the end, when the sad story of the murders is finally told, we see that the murderer does not clearly understand his or her own motives.
The writing of The Slipping Place began with some horrifying and appalling stories in the news. It was one of those times when there seemed to be many similar stories – when you find yourself saying, “What is going on? What’s wrong with the world?” On this occasion it was a series of reports of children being hurt, and in places where they should have been safe: in their own homes.
Maybe it wasn’t really an unusual number of cases. Maybe sometimes you just get sensitised to a certain thing and then you see incidences of it that you would normally miss. Either way, I read some appalling and disturbing stories about the physical abuse of very young children and they were preying on my mind … and then I started thinking about my own response to them.
A story like this is intolerable. It is unthinkable and dreadful and it rocks our view of the world. We are sickened and horrified. Then we turn the page and say ‘please pass the salt’. We close the computer and get on with our day.
How? Why can we do that? A small child having bones broken, cigarette burns. Somewhere in our city. This completely abhorrent. And yet, we put it aside. What do we say to ourselves that enables us to do that?
Child abuse cases raise the largest of moral and ethical dilemmas. I do not have answers to these. The Slipping Place poses questions.
Maybe the important word in the above paragraph is ‘unthinkable’. When something is truly abhorrent – a child being thrown into a wall, being bashed with a stick, a baby being shaken – it is simply impossible to absorb fully the reality of something like that. It would take time and work to picture clearly the events we have read about. And we don’t want to do that. We don’t make the effort, or take the time. We protect ourselves from the horror of it. Which, when you say it baldly like that –“we protect ourselves” – ourselves – it seems impossible to justify.
Maybe we have to do it. I don’t know. The world is full of dreadful things. If we fully absorbed them all, maybe nothing would function.
I don’t know.
“You draw a line. You decide what’s yours.”
I began thinking about distance. If a child was hurt right in front of us, if we were in the room, we would be traumatised forever. We would fly in and intervene. We would put ourselves at risk. But when it happens some distance away, we dissociate, we put it aside and get on with our lives.
How far? What distance is required? How do we decide?
There is a point in The Slipping Place where Veronica explains to a younger person:
“You can’t fix everything. You draw a line around things. You decide what’s yours.”
She wants to tell her son:
“Roland Roland Widdershins. You can’t save them all.”
That is one of the central ideas in the novel. I examine that process of drawing a line around what’s yours. The novel doesn’t not take a clear moral stance about it. I don’t think there is a clear answer. This is a story about a woman whose life is essentially comfortable. Some terrible things happen, at a distance from her, and gradually these are brought closer.
A related idea is the definition of family. A young person says to Veronica:
“The actual blood ties aren’t the most important thing are they?’
And she instinctively answers, ‘Yes.’
But as the story goes on, her position is challenged.