Welcome to #TheGoodDaughter blog tour. I am happy to hand over to Alexandra Burt for the low down on her latest novel.
The Good Daughter is published by Avon in the UK on 23 February 2017 and is available to buy here
The Story behind The Good Daughter
by Alexandra Burt
Every crime writer has their own story why they ended up writing crime fiction. One summer, when I was a teenager, a five-year old girl went missing in my friend’s neighborhood. The body was recovered only hours later raped and beaten to death in a culvert and the town remained in the grips of this horrendous crime for years to come. The case has remained unsolved for over forty years. That summer, I learned safety was a mere illusion; there were children who didn’t make it home. There were parents who saw the sun come up and their child’s bed remained empty, the covers untouched.
The deaths of children are atrocious and in my debut novel Remember Mia I imagined a mother in the grips of post-partum depression whose baby goes missing. I knew firsthand what it meant to suffer from postpartum depression but I expanded on that tragedy; what if the mother can’t remember what happened, what if police think she hurt her child? As I wrote the first draft, I decided to take the story to the highest level of suspense, the ultimate eraser of all memory; amnesia. In Remember Mia, a mother holds the key to what happened to her baby, but she doesn’t know whether she was responsible, doesn’t know if she’s the victim or the perpetrator. If I thought that the only thing I had in common with the character was suffering from post-partum depression, I had to eventually concede that that was only half the truth. There was another layer to the story; my attempt to live vicariously through a woman who did everything for a daughter she wasn’t able to reach for the first months of her life. While Estelle Paradise attempts to solve the puzzle of what happened to her daughter Mia, I was sitting at the keyboard paying my debts to the months during which I was unable to bond with my own daughter. Like Estelle in Remember Mia, I had to prove to myself and the world that I was able to come through for her.
Crime fiction is my passion and maybe there’s a part of me that acknowledges, if pushed hard enough, I too could commit a horrible crime. After all, I don’t put a wrong decision made at a fateful moment past anyone. I am obsessed with true crimes, especially unsolved ones. Specifically those that accuse the people closest to the victims; husbands, wives, parents, children. Some of those unsolved crimes I have studied for years, decades even, to a point I know every single detail. In general I remain somehow removed from the victims because I really don’t know them.
Until one time, when I did.
As I thought about writing my second book, I worried that there wouldn’t be much of an obsession to tap into but all the while the wheels of fate were turning, unbeknownst to me and a story unfolded around me. It is a personal and gritty story that demanded I turn tragedy into something more manageable. I was literally uncomfortable with being uncomfortable and since stories have a beginning and an end, conclude themselves into some sort of lesson learned or strength gained, I was able to move on. After The Good Daughter was written, there was something fathomable; guilt had been shed like a dog’s winter coat, my obsessions seemed just a bit less powerful. It felt like I had smudged my house with sage and purged ghosts living within my very own walls. I wasn’t at the heart of the story, I was a mere bystander, yet it is safe to say that I got caught up in it.
The Good Daughter was inspired by the unravelling of a marriage I witnessed. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill failed marriage. There was much more to it. Imagine a middle-aged couple and their ten-plus-years marriage coming to an abrupt end. There were no red flags, no infidelity, and no disagreements on financial decisions. I want to believe, like any marriage, it wasn’t perfect yet quite average in its trials and tribulations. The husband returned home after working overseas for years—there were visits over the years during their separation, even a vacation was planned in the weeks to come—yet he stood at the airport and she didn’t show. He feared the worst, an accident maybe, until he found his house empty, all her belongings had been removed, and a gun was missing.
It’s one thing to be in a deteriorating marriage and end up at a separation, it’s another to be the victim of a cloak and dagger operation in the middle of the night. The wife eventually informed him casually over the phone she’d left him, for ‘obvious reasons.’
The ‘obvious reasons’ she cited remained elusive to the husband and he decided to get the answers she was not willing to give. During the months that followed I lent him a shoulder to cry on and whatever transpired in those conversations was the part of the story I was privy to. Eventually the husband had to concede that he knew next to nothing about his wife; thirteen years of marriage and she had remained a stranger, her past murky at best. She had always been vague about her past and information was hard to come by but it became apparent that something wasn’t right. That was the part of the story he struggled with, him not having asked more questions. Eventually it became clear that this was not the whim of a middle-aged woman looking to end a marriage. Through documents and phone calls and some detective work her story unfolded and it was bombshell after bombshell: her entire family was ravaged by mental illness, locked away in institutions, one murdered, one committed suicide, one lived on the streets. There was so much tragedy in her life that one seemed to chase the next one. Most details about her past remained murky at best; information couldn’t be found, had been sealed, or people refused to talk. There was a death that remained shrouded in secrecy, we never got to the bottom of it. Her family was less than forthcoming and repeated appeals regarding her mental condition fell on deaf ears. We wanted to get her help, we even thought of having her committed for her own safety, after all she had taken a gun when she left. I won’t lie: I watched my back for months to come, I did a double take of my surroundings, I didn’t open my door without knowing who was on the other side. I knew what she was capable of and I didn’t feel safe.
Eventually they divorced. Her whereabouts are unknown, even to her family. One of the last conversations I had about her was the most poignant. The divorce was final, the husband had moved on. “I have talked to dozens of people, relatives and acquaintances, her children, her extended family” he said. “But not one, not one person had one good word to say about her.” I was taken aback by the comment. Imagine a life lived, children, two marriages, siblings, parents, and not one person she had touched in a meaningful way.
I struggled with her life story, I bounced back and forth between judging her and absolving her from guilt. Given the fact that her entire family had mental problems, she was in no way responsible for any genetic predisposition, yet there were also conscious choices she had made that contributed to a life out of control.
While researching mental illness running in families, I read an article about James Fallon, a neuroscientist and author of The Psychopath Inside. While studying brain scans, Fallon discovered that his own brain fit the profile of a psychopath. Genetic tests showed he had all DNA markers for aggression, violence and low empathy. He couldn’t reconcile his life and the fact that he had the same anatomical patterns that marked the minds of serial killers, after all he had never killed anyone. His family lineage included seven alleged murderers, including Lizzie Borden. How did a man with the genes and brain of a psychopath end up a non-violent scientist? Maybe the nurture aspect intervened—his mother had suffered multiple miscarriages and therefore she showered him with love and affection—and there is also free will.
The discord between genetic predisposition and being able to assign guilt fascinated me. After all, no once chooses to be mentally ill or chooses to be born to parents ill-equipped to counteract nature and allow nurture to dominate.
In order to absolve myself from this struggle, I used this story as inspiration. THE GOOD DAUGHTER is the tale of a young woman in search of her past, and the mother who will do anything to keep it hidden. In the story, Dahlia Waller’s childhood are memories of stuffy cars, seedy motels, and a rootless existence traveling the country with her eccentric mother. In order to understand her past, Dahlia goes back to the town of Aurora, Texas, and back into the past of a woman on the brink of madness.
After you read THE GOOD DAUGHTER, you might ask yourself if we are predisposed to mental disorders, can we fight against our genes? And if we can’t go against our predispositions—if our evil deeds are inevitable—how do we assign guilt and hold people accountable? According to Dostoyevsky, “nothing is easier than denouncing the evildoer. Nothing more difficult than understanding him.” The wife’s story was an inspiration to write a novel, to her it was her life. Stranger than fiction.
My review of The Good Daughter
The Good Daughter is the latest mystery to hit the bookshelves from Alexandra Burt. It is a slow burning character study of two oddball characters, daughter Dahlia and her mother, Memphis. Plus there are jars of creepy crickets thrown in for good measure! Yuck!
Different characters are explored in turn, as we hear from Dahlia, Memphis and a woman named Quinn. At the beginning of the book, it feels like you are thrown into the most complicated puzzle. Who is who? Who is Quinn? Who is Memphis? What does it all mean? With a little patience, it all knits together. This is a story of motherhood, unconventional family life and difficult choices. It is about Dahlia, a woman who has been brought up by her mother to live a life off the radar. Dahlia has no official records, no birth certificate or National Insurance number (or whatever the equivalent is in the US). She calmly accepts the jobs she must take are ones that continue to make her invisible in the eyes of the State. It seems odd, but this is the way she has been brought up and she is not the sort of woman to demand her rights. Certain things result in Dahlia beginning to question her rather odd little world. She feels drawn to a female jogger who has been attacked. No one knows who this woman is. Then her mother starts to decline mentally and starts to reveal information about herself. What are Memphis’s secrets? And how will Dahlia cope with the truth about the past?
This book requires a great deal of patience initally. It is worth it! We know very early on that there is something suspicious about this mother and daughter; how Memphis became the mother to Dahlia. It is also pretty obvious that something illegal has gone on. No one lives the kind of ‘cash in hand’ life, working in the most low skilled jobs unless they have no choice. No one moves around all of the time, unless they are living in some kind of fear. This is a slow reveal mystery. It is a case of how did this mother/daughter relationship happen? What made Memphis the kind of woman who is terrified of authority figures? What kind of woman is Memphis?
Complicated, eerie and distinctly odd; this is a book to savour. It will shock and disturb. I was desperate for Dahlia to just go to the authorities, to get paperwork, to be normal. I really was! This is one strange mother/daughter relationship, I won’t forget!
Author website http://www.alexandraburt.com/
Check out the rest of the tour!