by Joanne Norris
Throughout history, literature has been an important vessel not just for entertainment, but as a way of experiencing the world. Whether it’s contemplating complex emotions and relationships or responding to current events, literature helps us see. It reflects the world back, giving us insight into experiences different to our own; experiences that have the power to dramatically change our inbuilt assumptions and prejudices. Arguably the most famous examples of this are the ‘social concern’ novels of the Victorian era, popularised by writers such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. Dickens in particular is well known for being a social commentator, using his novels as a way of shining a light on moral injustices and poverty.
Part of what makes Rachel Edwards’ debut novel, Darling, so timely and sharp is that she has taken a contemporary social concern and transported it into a psychological thriller. Inspired by the abuse that she faced following the 2016 EU referendum, Edwards uses the atmosphere of a divided society and the microaggressions faced by people of colour to structure a classic retelling of the ‘evil stepmother’ trope. It’s a story we all know inside out. So well known, in fact, that for children facing the arrival of a stepmother, it can be hard to shake the ingrained feeling that this new woman is dangerous. Edwards brings this theme to a new level, heightened by the distrust of Darling as a black woman and a stepmother, and existing in an environment simmering with racism. Brexit is a potent backdrop to a thriller because emotions are already running high, particularly so in the immediate wake of the vote when Darling is set. Throughout the novel, we are forced to question what is evoking more tension: the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the renewed vigour it gives to the racist group Bright New Britain, or the turbulent relationship between Darling and Lola. Both have the same narrative arc: we follow each story as the pressure rises, waiting for the inevitable. The difference is that from the very beginning of the novel, we know that Lola will die. With Brexit, where the story will culminate is not so explicit. However you voted, the anticipation is the same.
The increase in racist aggressions post-referendum vote was widely reported on. Coinciding with the 2017 terrorist attacks, studies have shown that hate crime more than doubled. At the beginning of the novel, we see Darling confronted by a group of white men, while her future husband Thomas looks on. Considering Thomas’ reaction to the encounter, Darling muses:
Yes, he was appalled to the core and embarrassed, but above all relieved he was not them.
Here, Edwards cleverly mirrors a social situation that we see time and time again. Thomas steps in and supports Darling. He does this because he cares about her, and is genuinely affronted by the behaviour of these men. There is no suggestion of an ulterior motive, and for change to happen it is vital that we all become allies in situations where we are witnesses to injustice. However, it is important to note the relief that Darling sees in him. This is the relief of a person of privilege who considers themselves to not be part of the problem. Edwards has hit upon a hugely relevant and delicate nuance that we should all consider in these kinds of discussions. Thomas feels relief “above all” – above his anger at the situation, above his concern for Darling. To what extent do we all distance ourselves, feeling relieved by our assumed moral high ground when witnessing actions that we deem unacceptable?
The relationship between Darling and Thomas circles around these markers as we learn more about Thomas and the world that he inhabits. Thomas is an architect – an apt metaphor for the privilege he has in society. As a cis, white, middle class man, he automatically has access to more space in society than Darling. What’s more, he also has the power to create space. When Darling spends time in his family home, the contrast between the spaces they inhabit is felt keenly by her – and tellingly, he is unaware of this. Thomas has never felt unwelcome, and thus doesn’t walk into spaces in the hyper-aware way that Darling does. The first time she physically walks into his space, she is instructed by Lola to take her shoes off. She is immediately aware of her own “ugly bare feet” in stark contrast to the manicured toes of Lola. Her bare feet in this already established family home signify her nakedness and vulnerability in Thomas’s world.
Despite Darling’s discomfort, “As I walked his hallways I believed in him more than ever.” She sees all the symbols of his social standing and influence, and trusts in them. It’s hard not to read this as a comment on the way that a patriarchal society dictates an inherent belief in certain groups by virtue of their race, sex, or class. Darling says of Thomas:
[He was] a true domestic God. What power! I imagined myself as part of the house itself, a quiet corner or window.
While we could interpret the phrase ‘domestic God’ as an overturning of gender roles, there are other subtexts lurking beneath those three words that destabilises the impression we receive, so apparently doting and full of love. For instance, the phrase ‘domestic goddess’ typically does not capitalise the ‘G’ – a suggestion that the tasks undertaken by a domestic goddess lack the power and significance of those who create the walls, or the world. When Darling images herself not living in the space of the house, but existing as “a quiet corner or window,” she highlights her own marginalisation. The whole house and the dynamics that play out within it act as a microcosm of the world outside, each detail a mirror of the experiences she and many others have in their own lives outside the home.
Power and social privilege often roll out a red carpet straight into the spotlight of another kind of privilege – blindness. There are moments in the novel where we get an insight into Thomas’s blindness; his inability (whether purposeful or simply an embedded response) to truly see or understand the depth and reality of Darling’s life as a black woman in a society that consistently undermines and shuts her out. As Darling says herself, “My husband was not made for too much reality.” It’s hard not to feel frustrated by this kind of outlook, and yet at no point is any judgement cast upon him. Edwards is careful not to judge any of the characters even in their worst moments, but the lack of judgement on her husband speaks the loudest as it is simultaneously the most common. It echoes what happens every day throughout society – the lack of judgement here isn’t shocking because we are so used to it. We are trained to accept and justify the lack of awareness of those most privileged in our culture. What makes this question of ‘to judge or not to judge’ such a fascinating element of the novel are the ways that you can look at it. One, in terms of literary style: as a subversion of the thriller genre, where narratives typically have a ‘goodie and baddie’ element, with the protagonist fighting against an evil or immoral force. Two, from a human perspective: that people and their actions are never clear-cut, neatly falling into ‘good person’ or ‘bad person.’ What Darling does so well is intertwining real life events (the referendum, its effect on people of colour and the bubbling of discontent swelling from the vote) with literary themes we know and understand (the evil stepmother, the social concern novel, the thriller).
Entangled in Darling’s acknowledgement of Thomas’ inherent blindness is the moment where she asks him if he sees her as exotic. Her response to his unwitting affirmation is short and poignant:
The worst answer would have been the lie.
Even as she asks him the question, she already knows what the answer will be. She has experienced it all her life. Darling has to weigh up whether it is worse for him to answer honestly, or to lie and say what she wants to hear. The novel stages the constant battling between two warring social perceptions – unwanted outsider / exotic intrigue.
Exoticism comes up a lot in Darling, most often in food. Food occupies a distinct place in the novel, tied up both in Darling’s personal sense of identity and the way that other people see her. As well as connecting Darling to her heritage, it is part of what makes her feel inauthentic and out of place – another of the dichotomies that Edwards explores with such deftness. When Darling first plans on cooking for Thomas she wants to do a European dish, “slain, seared and bloody on its greenery, there all for him on a plate,” but he assumes it will be Jamaican:
It would have been mean, self-defeating and, as the kids had it, ‘awkward,’ to say anything more than:
‘Uh huh, I’m going to cook you up a real Jamaican treat.’
Thomas’ casual stereotyping here has colonial undertones that are at odds with the fact that Darling is from Basingstoke, and has never been to Jamaica. When Darling talks about Jamaica, she capitalises ‘Home,’ giving it an almost otherworldly status. Respect is due, but it’s not familiar enough for the intimacy of her lower-case British ‘home.’ As Darling moves in with Thomas, she starts to cook more and more Jamaican food, which others herself with Lola even further. The more she cooks ‘authentically,’ the more she conforms to the expectations of Thomas, but crucially it also connects her to herself in a way that can’t be touched by anyone else. She connects with the power of food to do good, and nourish, and hears her mother’s voice while she cooks. It’s a space where she can be herself.
There is so much to be said in praise of Edwards’ ability to weave together current social affairs, the intricacies of relationships between privileged and marginalised, and the spaces that we inhabit. But it would be impossible to write about Darling without discussing the main narrative we follow: the toxicity between Darling and Lola. Throughout the novel we see each character serve their next move – from outright obstruction to genuine peace offering, Darling and Lola tussle emotionally with each other, vying alternately for defeat or cooperation. It’s impossible to know whether Lola’s burgeoning association with Bright New Britain is a genuine belief in their values, or if the racist remarks made in her diaries are an attempt to legitimise her distress at the arrival of a stepmother. As before, no judgement is cast. We see all sides of Lola – the difficult, unpleasant side and the moments of genuine care. As we read the sections of Lola’s diary, we feel that we see all of her. By association, the parts narrated by Darling have the same effect. As the novel meets its crescendo, you slowly start to realise that Darling’s narration is not as open or honest as it seems – hinted throughout with the mysterious phonecalls from her ‘long lost’ sister. There are unknown facets of Darling, hidden behind the stereotypes and conflicting notions of who she is supposed to be:
We were seen as either-ors: diva or drudge, Dahomey Amazon or post-colonial night nurse, lightning rods for the whole ho/madonna issue. We were each of us a continent of contention.
As discussed before, Edwards uses these either-ors peppered throughout the novel, implicit as they are in every aspect of Darling’s life. We’re reminded again of food, and its differing, opposing meanings: one of the ways that Darling attempts to win over Lola is with food, but it is also instrumental in Lola’s undoing.
Right up until the end, we don’t suspect Darling of any wrongdoing. Even though she has spoken about the black female stereotypes that exist and the real selves that they forcefully mask, we still see her as the motherly nurse. The carefully controlled vision of Darling that we are given access to is the mother meticulously caring for her unwell child; the devoted stepparent with an unwavering belief that she can come closer to Lola by showing her love. The interactions between Darling and Bright New Britain and the stereotypes she is subject to even from those that love her, show us that the space occupied by Darling as a black woman has already been decided and is out of her control.
Dahomey Amazon, post-colonial night nurse.
Unwelcome immigrant, exotic accessory.
Except Darling’s space is no longer out of control. She is the narrator and she pulls our attention to where it needs to be. The truth is hiding in plain sight, but because of our ready-made assumptions we become as blind to reality as Thomas. As a knowing nod to this, the final part of the novel is an advert for a nurse – a nurse for none other than the head of Bright New Britain, who abused her as a child and continues to torment her through his political party. Edwards hints that Darling will continue in this faux-nurse persona, but now that we realise how little we know about her the ending becomes even more tantalising. The truths, untruths and either-ors woven into Darling make the novel not only an effective thriller, but an effective depiction of our own social concern. We may not know exactly what is in store for us post-29th March 2019, but we can hope that there might be readers out there who enjoy Darling not only for its gripping storyline, but the insight into the reality of a divided country and the people it affects.