Stella, Freya, Rachel and me

Writing a novel about two sisters led Elizabeth Brooks to reflect on her own family’s experience of mental illness and suicide

Hero image

“What was the inspiration behind your book?” Any author will tell you it’s the most frequent question at litfest events, and a tricky one to answer. Now that I know to expect it, I make sure I have an answer up my sleeve (“It all began with this particular place/book/encounter…”) but even though my stock explanation is true – or not untrue – it is always too tidy. Writing a novel is a murky business, and it’s often unclear where ideas are coming from, even when they’re coming thick and fast. Piecing together the bones of a plot is the least of it. Often I don’t know what I’m really, really writing about until I’ve written it.

Like my fictional counterpart, I don’t believe it’s necessary to dye the past in a colder shade

When I began work on The Whispering House I wasn’t thinking: I’ll write a novel about a young woman whose elder sister commits suicide, because that’s a situation I’ve experienced myself. I assumed that my main focus of interest lay in the suspense elements of the story: the toxic love triangle, the secret in the attic, the uncanny portrait hanging in the hall. It’s true that the relationship between the two sisters, Stella and Freya, formed an important thread, and that their story had echoes of my own family’s experiences – but I wasn’t particularly aware of that, at first. I needed my two female protagonists to share a strong bond, and sisterhood seemed as good a device as any.

If I’d been pushed to articulate what I was doing at a deeper level than plot, I might have said: “I’m writing about the ways in which human beings are essentially mysterious to one another, even within their most intimate relationships.” It’s a theme that’s touched on in several ways throughout the novel, by means of various characters, but perhaps most vividly in the story of Stella’s suicide, and her sister Freya’s struggle to understand.

It’s 15 years since my own sister, Rachel, took her own life, after a valiant struggle with mental illness. I remember phoning my mum and dad one evening in September 2005 to discuss travel plans (I was living in the Isle of Man with my husband and one-year-old daughter by then, and planning a visit to the family in Chester), and blathering on about which ferry we should book, and whether to bring the car. I went on for some time before noticing that Dad wasn’t saying much, and that when he did, his voice sounded odd. My legs went to jelly and I said “Has something happened?”, which was when he told me.

The news was both shocking and unsurprising at the same time. The possibility that Rachel might die like this had lurked for years – sometimes looming large, sometimes receding – so that when it finally happened, it felt like the fulfilment of a long-held dread.

Grief is a strange business. The reality of it often seems to me more complicated – less photogenic – than the image we have of it when we’re not going through it. The night after Rachel died, I remember sitting on the stairs until the small hours reading David Copperfield, weeping helplessly over the death of Dora Spenlow, and eventually going to bed because my feet were cold. Up until Rachel’s funeral, my feelings were all over the place, but afterwards I took a semi-calculated resolution to shelve the whole business and deal with it later. I felt as though I had no room, either in my head or my heart, to deal with something so huge when I had a young family to look after.

The extent to which I succeeded, rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly), surprised me then, and surprises me now. Kind people would ask me how I was feeling, and the honest answer often seemed too callous to voice: “I feel relief, because the thing I’ve dreaded for so long has finally happened, so I don’t have to dread it anymore,” or “I feel irritated with her for doing something so impossibly melodramatic,” or “Just at the moment, I don’t feel much at all.”

If I’d consciously set out to write The Whispering House as a means of processing what happened, I expect I’d have modelled the fictional elder sister, Stella, on Rachel, and the fictional younger sister, Freya, on me. At first glance it looks like the obvious way to proceed, but I’m glad I didn’t do it. Writing real people into books is a complicated business at the best of times, especially in the context of a fictional plot. Portrait making would have distracted me from my exploration of mental illness and suicide, and the effects these might have on a sibling relationship. As it is, the two elder sisters share vulnerabilities but not characters: fictional Stella is a wild child with a cruel streak whereas real-life Rachel was shy, thoughtful and unfailingly kind.

Character – or rather, the way in which other people perceive character – is one of the many casualties of mental illness. When someone is mentally ill, their condition risks becoming a catch-all explanation for every personality trait: so-and-so is not genuinely eccentric/mean/happy/gregarious/introverted (choose your adjective), but ill. Mental illness defines its victims in a way that physical illness does not. It’s like a dust-sheet thrown over a richly sophisticated artwork. In my novel, the surviving sister, Freya, is anxious not to remember Stella in a spirit of bland pity. The memories she clings to are the ones in which her sister is at her most vivid, whether that’s throwing a tantrum in public as a child, or dancing on the sofa to Abba, or stressing in the kitchen over a fiddly recipe.

If mental illness has a nasty way of obliterating personality, death makes matters a whole lot worse. One of the things that worried me most, in the aftermath of Rachel’s death, was the possibility that my own children would grow up with a warped idea of the aunt they never knew. She might become a pallid figure of doomed youth, “snatched away in beauty’s bloom,” to quote from one of Lord Byron’s more mawkish poems. Or – worse – she might seem a ghoulish and frightening figure, especially once they found out that she’d taken her own life. Suicide is always going to present a challenge to the imagination, but I was determined that it shouldn’t become Rachel’s defining feature. Freya expresses the same ambition, with regard to her own sister: “One day we would be able to talk about her in a free and easy way, and she would belong to us again. I would be able to say ‘Stella’ and move lightly on, instead of feeling like I’d drawn a curtain across the sun.”

In fact, I think it will be all right. I’ve yet to tell my 13 year old how Rachel died, but I’ve told his elder sister. The subject came up naturally when we were sitting on her bed one night, having a chat. Of course she was upset, but as long as she knows it’s not a taboo subject, and that there are plenty of other tales to tell (our unsuccessful attempt to flush burnt toast down Granny’s loo, aged eight and six, was the one that lightened the mood on that occasion), I think Rachel will be a real person in her niece’s imagination.

It almost seems wrong to end this reflection on a hopeful note. There can’t be many topics bleaker than suicide. It’s such a lonely thing to do, and it can feel, to the family left behind, like utter rejection. When Rachel died, I expected that I’d never be able to think or feel about her in the same way again. I had a dismal idea that from now on she would be, above all else, “A Suicide”, and that the life she’d led up until September 2005 – with all its highs and lows – would be retrospectively transcribed into a minor key. Those memories of us swimming in the sea at Aberdovey, or playing tennis against the wall at home, or laughing our heads off about who knows what… I’d have to acknowledge that they were tainted by tragedy all along, if only I’d known.

However, like my fictional counterpart Freya, I am deeply resistant to this; I don’t believe it’s necessary to dye the past in a colder shade. The manner of our sisters’ deaths was terrible but the lives they led before that were – for much of the time – not terrible at all. The happy times were truly happy times. When I look back on my early childhood, Rachel is one of the principal players: the one with whom I invented stories, cooked up schemes, talked, argued, played and laughed, and her death hasn’t changed that.

It’s for this reason I chose to write Freya’s memories of Stella in the present tense. Some of these flashbacks are dark and disturbing; some are happy and carefree; all of them refer to a person who is, for the duration of the scene, entirely alive.

“Stella nods, and I wish I could say something amazing and wise and helpful…At least we are here now, with our arms intertwined; I will have to make do with that. She laughs slightly as a wave breaks over her ankles, and I glance at her and laugh too.”

The Whispering House by Elizabeth Brooks is published by Doubleday

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Stella, Freya, Rachel and me

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.