My dad’s partner recommended Mrs Bridge. She’d read it with a nostalgic eye, feeling a thrill of recognition, as her mother had also been an upper middle class American housewife. For me it was less familiar territory, but somehow still thrillingly recognisable because Mrs Bridge, her mind, her world, is presented in very short, profound chapters which, like recurring private jokes, make us feel intimate with the protagonist.
Each chapter gives us a glimpse of ordinary life, of joy, suffering, bafflement, levity, and the writing has an amazing lightness of touch, so the book is deep without being dense. Mrs Bridge (India – we are told her first name, but it is never used again) observes and wonders and argues and carries out the duties she thinks are necessary, but she doesn’t often examine or gain much insight into these things. It seems as if she is unable to fully understand her situation, or if she is able, then the episode ends before she can come to any conclusion.
When I began to write Whistle in the Dark I kept thinking of Mrs Bridge and that interrupted understanding, and how it gave the reader the freedom to form his or her own opinions. I thought it would be interesting to pair this structure with a mystery, to use it as a framework for my own type of story. My timeline would be different – Whistle takes place over a few months rather than a whole lifetime – and the themes, preoccupations and purpose would be different too, but my way of writing, and of seeing writing, fit into this framework naturally.
I tend to imagine a novel as a series of significant moments, and the short, titled chapters made these moments even more significant. The effect is a kind of layering of meaning, each episode confirming or challenging the impression of the previous one. Joshua Ferris, in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Mrs Bridge, tells us that every chapter, for the protagonist, comprises a ‘psychological shock…directed at some aspect of her being – her composure, her understanding, her very existence.’ I found I was giving my protagonist, Jen, a moment of paranoia in almost every chapter, and that this paranoia was the grit the novel grew around.
I was looser with the structure, included flashbacks, lists, script form. I wanted to be more playful, more formally surprising, to mimic in some way the frenetic pace of modern life. The reader is drawn closer to Jen too, than he or she is to Mrs Bridge. Jen’s emotions are explored, analysed and talked about, as we tend to explore, analyse and talk about all our emotions now, and her alienation from her children is curated by social media.
Ultimately, they are very different books about very different characters, but I wonder if Mrs Bridge and Jen might recognise in each other a kindred spirit, were they to meet: two women who understand that our relationships, our personalities, our lives, are made up of small moments.