Christina Hopkinson’s new novel, The Weekend Wives, is out in paperback this week. Three women find their lives unravelling as secrets emerge while their husbands work in far-flung places leaving them to fight on the home front. Here the author explains why the women’s homes and the way they look are so useful in finding a way into the characters and their states of mind.
Some authors have very precise ideas about their characters’ looks or how they might dress – you know those novels who describe in great detail the designer Christian Louboutins or the tawny locks of their protagonists.
While I know how my characters look to me, it’s not particularly well defined nor is it something that I’d feel I want to share with readers on the page. I’d rather there was something left to the imagination.
But as to how they decorate their homes… that’s a different matter. I know exactly how their homes look and feel, all of which helps me to develop their personalities more deeply. It’s almost as though I have to be able to sit on their sofas before I understand them.
In my second novel, The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs, the protagonist Mary feels frustrated by the dissonance between the chaos of her surroundings (messy house, young children, lazy husband) and the ordered life that she desires. She senses somehow that her house is a physical manifestation of her own failings as a modern woman, in the way that some people, I suppose, might feel ashamed to be caught without make-up.
Her nemesis, Mimi, has a vast and immaculate house, including a kitchen which is so minimalist that there aren’t even handles on the cabinets. It’s as though Mimi’s home represents a sort of purity to which Mary can only aspire.
The three women who make up The Weekend Wives of my latest novel all have issues that are in some ways connected to or reflected by the physical surroundings of their home.
Initially I found it hard to get into the skin of one of them, Sasha, who is being stalked by a woman from her husband’s past. Then I saw a converted chapel featured in a lifestyle magazine and being shown off to beautiful advantage by its owner. It was stunning – high ceilings, cashmere throws in bright colours, artworks placed casually yet perfectly. By being able to picture Sasha living there, surrounded by this loveliness, I could understand her decisions better. She’s quite a cool, self-contained character who pours warmth and joy into her home. It is the embodiment of the love she feels for her children and which makes her decision to ignore the cracks in her marriage and flaws in her husband more forgivable.
Tamsin, the second of the weekend wives, lives in a show home so devoid of warmth that the sofas still have their plastic protective covering. In her life, houses are not homes but ‘investments’. She, too, is a bit like a beautiful, expensive piece of furniture with her real self wrapped away in wipe-clean cling film.
The third of the trio is Emily, who has moved to a rural area with a craving for an idealised, idyllic life for her children – one that she’s read about in Enid Blyton books and which may never have existed, let alone now. As a consequence, her kitchen described as being almost like a stage set for the perfect country hearth – old-fashioned Roberts radio, oil-fired stove, cute dog and a jam jar filled with wild flowers. She needs to be able to dress the theatrical stage of her life in order to feel like she can convincingly play the part of the rural earth mother.
Maybe it’s trite to equate the interiors of my characters’ houses with the interiors of their souls, but I’m fascinated by what our surroundings reveal about us. Just don’t ask to have a nose around my house… I fear the insides of some cupboards would indicate a mind filled with chaos and disorder.
The Weekend Wives by Christina Hopkinson is available now in paperback