Light Shining In the Forest, my new novel, covers very different territory to my last few books. It is a story about the abduction of three children from the streets of various small towns and villages in Northumberland close to the Scottish Borders.
The idea of writing about this subject first came to me in 2009. I think it might have been the Baby P story that triggered it, but it doesn’t really matter which one it was: at any rate, a brutal murder of a small child took place, followed by huge media coverage. The interesting thing was that so much of the media attention was focused on fixing the blame. Who was ‘responsible’? Was it the social services? Or the police? Of course the person (or persons) responsible was whoever committed the crimes, but that wasn’t as interesting a subject, it seemed, as the media lynching of a social worker.
Perhaps it has become unacceptable to suggest that there might really be some people in whom destructive force has overwhelmed or replaced their humanity. Everyone’s a victim, aren’t they? Today’s child abuser might have once been abused. But in all the analysis, don’t we sometimes forget that we have choices to make, and sometimes choices are made which are unforgiveable and can only be described as evil?
I decided I wanted to write about various aspects of this: the strange world we now live in where following due process has become more important than knowing the difference between right and wrong, where risk assessments and meetings take priority over action. I wanted to speculate why this has happened. Could it be that as we have become more secular as a society, we are withdrawing gradually from the value system provided by our religion (whether Catholic, Anglican or any other) for so many centuries, only to see that nothing has taken its place: that an ethical void is developing at the heart of what we thought was a civilised society.
I must make my own position clear at this point. I am not a member of some secret Christian fundamentalist cult. When I am asked to describe my religion (along with my ethnicity, gender preference and all the other intrusive questions one is obliged to answer when applying for some important form like new dog-licence) I put down C of E. I go to church about four times a year, so I am not a model member of anybody’s congregation. All I have been trying to do in this novel is write as an observer, and then knit the observations together to tell a story.
So I have written a story about missing children. In the course of my research I discovered some of the statistics about the numbers of children in the UK who go missing every year – or, indeed, every day – and the numbers of children who are the victims of violent crimes. It does give one pause for thought when one looks at these figures. We think of ourselves as a civilised, tolerant, secure society. But scratch the surface…and what lies beneath suggests this view is too complacent.
As the story developed I wanted to explore the answer to one other question. As we collectively abandon whatever nourishment we once derived from our religion – and I am speaking of UK society as a whole, where church attendance rates are amongst the lowest in the European Union – what does that say about our ability to sustain belief and imagination, the two things that most define us as humans?
So the story speculates about how we might react if, indeed, we encountered something that might once have been called divine. Would we know what we were looking at? Or would we walk on by?
All of these themes might well sink any book beneath their weight. I have tried to avoid that trap, by writing the novel as a thriller. I hope I have written a book that will encourage the reader to keep turning the page.
I have also written about the landscape I live in, adjacent to the Roman Wall and not far from the great northern forest of Kielder. I wanted to convey the sense of place that is so special to this (relatively) unknown and undeveloped part of the United Kingdom. As ever, the people, the churches, the police stations, the small towns and villages my characters inhabit are all my creations. But I hope they are a little bit like the real thing as well.
This blog first published at the W&N Fiction blog.