Ella looked away from the dead man’s body. Dead, she thought, but didn’t know, because she couldn’t bring herself to touch his skin again. She could feel the places where he’d touched her. Knew they would be bruises tomorrow, perfect impressions of fingerprints.
At a party celebrating reaching the crowdfunding target for her book, Ella kills a man. No one sees it happen. The flats where the party takes place are due to be knocked down, only six residents remaining. Ella’s part of a campaign to support the residents, protesting against the gentrification of the area, as high-rise tower blocks appear next door and all over London.
The only person Ella tells is her friend, and resident of the flats, Molly. At 60, Molly is a veteran campaigner and has witnessed her fair share of violence. Together, they move the body to the lift shaft and push it down. Molly cleans the flat where the incident has taken place, ensuring no traces of blood remain. She assumes that once the body’s discovered, the police won’t pay too much attention to a building marked for demolition.
Here the story diverges into two strands. The present-day section follows Molly’s first-person narrative as she and Ella wait for someone to discover the body and the police to arrive. Molly attempts to look after and manage Ella, scared that she will crumble under interrogation, while trying to continue as normal herself. She’s involved in a relationship with a younger man, Callum, who also lives in the flats, and she works as a photographer. One of her most famous shots is of Ella being beaten by a police office at student protest.
Ella’s narrative travels backwards, slowly revealing who she is and what she’s been through. Her story’s entwined with several men: Dylan, who she meets for sex; Quinn, a campaigner who prefers more violent methods of protest and has just been released from prison, and Sinclair, a journalist who’s writing a book on a history of the protest movement. Probably the most significant man in her life though is her father, ACC Alec Riordan.
In her first standalone novel, Dolan explores themes of protest, violence and female friendship. The feminist slant on the protest movement, looking at women’s involvement in a number of big campaigns including the miners’ strike, is an interesting and welcome one. Bar Greenham Common, much of women’s contribution to these events has been erased. The friendship between an older and younger woman is also significant. It’s rare to see this type of friendship depicted in literature, particularly taking such a central role.
This Is How It Ends is a triumph. Gripping, thoughtful, feminist; I loved it.
I’m delighted that Eva agreed to answer some question about the book and her work.
This Is How It Ends has two protagonists: Ella, who’s in her 20s, and Molly, who’s 60. What interests you about women’s stories and why did you choose to make your characters such different ages?
I’m interested in telling the stories of women who might be considered outside the mainstream, narratives which aren’t driven by marriage or motherhood or competing over lovers, because there are plenty of writers doing that already and doing a better job of it than I would. Specifically I wanted to write about intergenerational female friendships because they seem quite rare in fiction. Happy for recommendations if I’ve missed those books!
I suspect age gap friendships are quite scarce in real life as well, but I’m not sure why. I cherish the friendships I have with older women, they bring a different perspective and experience I simply don’t have, some are a steadying influence but some are much wilder than me; all of them are very similar to my mum, which is probably significant. I’m lucky enough to have a fierce and amazing mother who I’m very close to, and I think that’s why my fiction keeps coming back to characters who don’t have that great relationship and how the lack of it affects them.
I wanted to put all that stuff on the page.
Molly has lived the life she expects Ella to commit herself to and she believes she can help Ella live it better than she did by showing her all the pitfalls and essentially fast tracking her along with advice and contacts. Will Ella take that advice? Will she learn from Molly’s mistakes or repeat them? I also wanted to explore a proxy mother/daughter relationship, the kind you see with people who are bonded by profession or beliefs. Does it fall into the same patterns as a blood bond? Does social conditioning drive the parties into that familiar pattern because we don’t know any other way to conceive of intergenerational female friendship except through the lens of maternal instinct? That turned into quite a big theme of Molly and Ella’s relationship.
One of the themes of the novel is the idea of protest – historic ones such as Greenham Common and contemporary ones against gentrification. Why did you choose this as a central theme?
My earlier books have all been about individual outsiders or marginalised groups crushed by society and I suppose, in some small way, I wanted to write a more optimistic story this time around; individuals coming together to fight the system, solidarity in the face of overwhelming opposition. Also, it does feel like we’re experiencing a moment right now – from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo – there’s revolution in the air. I can’t think of another point in my lifetime when protest has felt so necessary and so, maybe, hopefully, capable of prompting real and positive change.
Crime fiction prides itself that it operates on the bleeding edge of social issues and this is a development which has been crying out for attention for a good few years now. There are tiny hints towards it in the Zigic and Ferreira books – my way of alluding to something I was itching to write about – and this time I got to plunge headlong into it, writing about subjects which I couldn’t before; the social cleansing of our cities, the legacy of Greenham Common, the importance of direct action and the personal sacrifices people make to try and change the world for the better.
The novel has an interesting structure, Molly tells events from the discovery of the dead body to their conclusion, while Ella’s sections move backwards slowly revealing aspects of her past. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way and were there any challenges in the writing of it?
It’s not a spoiler to say that Ella is responsible for the dead body she and Molly hide. This Is How It Ends is as much a whydunnit as anything and I wanted to put the reader in a similar position to Molly – wondering if she did the right thing in helping Ella cover up her crime. So I decided we’d gradually unpeel Ella’s layers, just as Molly does, catching her out in small lies and then discovering the reason for each of them as her storyline unspools backwards. Without a hefty police strand in the book this seemed the best way to dig into Ella’s past and the events which brought her to that room with that corpse.
Honestly, there was a lot of swearing and hair pulling while I tried to make the two intertwining narratives work. It was important that they touch in lots of places to help the story stay clear and those moments of crossover were some of the first things I plotted. Once those big events were fixed fitting the rest of the plot in around them was a much more relaxed process.
This is the first time you’ve set a novel in London rather than Peterborough; why did you decide on the change?
It’s a subject I’ve wanted to explore for a few years but it felt like it needed a bigger setting than Peterborough and also wouldn’t work within the confines of a detective novel. London was the natural choice because the property market there is super charged, awash with money of dubious provenance and with developers seeming to operate with very little in the way of constraints from the various councils. The more research I did the more opaque it seemed; essentially lawless and massively damaging to a precarious working class population who are being put out of their homes to make way for ‘lock up and leave’ investment opportunities, as well as the young who are finding it impossible to get a foot on the property ladder. It’s also where the vast majority of protests are being mounted, so the natural setting.
This is your first standalone novel following four Zigic and Ferreira books. How did it feel to write something different?
Liberating! The police procedural genre is attractive because it comes with a fairly firm structure built into it – your detectives investigate a murder, you know roughly where you’re going before you even start to plan. But, after four books published and lots more written and stowed away in the drawer, I felt like I needed to push myself and see what I could achieve without that helpful skeleton in place.
I discovered that I really like being free from the constraints and from my series characters – sorry Zigic and Ferreira. With This Is How It Ends I got the opportunity to write lead characters who were more like me, who share my political beliefs and who were, finally, operating on the other side of the law. Laws, in this case, which are frequently unjust and stacked firmly against the people. That was hugely freeing.
What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I’m massively superstitious about discussing works in progress but I can say it’s another standalone, also set in London, but this time the political intrigue takes place at the other end of the social scale. It follows three women who are locked in a power struggle with each other and the system which they work within.
My blog focuses on women writers; what are your favourite books by women?
Ooh, so many! Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout, Autumn by Ali Smith, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, NW by Zadie Smith, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre.
It’s only been the last few years that I’ve realised how my reading habits have skewed male and canonical ever since my teens, so I’m in the process of plugging the gaps in my reading right now.
Thanks to Eva Dolan for the interview and to Bloomsbury for the proof of the novel.