Wythenshawe, South Manchester. 1985. The Dodds family once ruled Manchester’s underworld but now the men are dead, leaving three generations of women trapped in a house haunted by violence, harbouring an unregistered baby. Matriarch Nedra presides over the household as she prepares the welcome feast for her grandson’s return from prison. Her grieving daughter-in-law Carol is visited by both the welcome, intimate ghost of her murdered lover and by Mac, an ageing criminal enforcer who may offer her a future. Jan is the teenage tearaway running from her mother, her grandmother and her own unnamed baby. Over a few days, the Dodds women must confront the legacy of the men who have defined their lives and try to break the cycle for good. Tom Benn is an author, screenwriter and lecturer from Stockport.
How was the idea for Oxblood born?
I wrote it primarily because I needed to know what the women in my previous Manchester crime novels were up to when their fellers were busy killing each other or taking “Strangeways sabbaticals”. It’s that germ of noir: why women put up with men; the truths certain women deny themselves and each other to justify their lifelong sacrifices. The strength they can source from their own martyrdom; and when they finally realise enough is enough.
You’ve said it’s your first book in a decade. Are your other forms of writing as fulfilling as writing novels?
I find any form of writing difficult, but having written is always fulfilling! Oxblood took ages partly because the stakes were higher. There was more to go wrong, given the female narrative perspectives and bigger moral canvas. But I was also cheating on the manuscript with other projects too. Some of my screenwriting ended up unconsciously bleeding into the novel. I scripted a short horror film called Real Gods Require Blood, about a woman and two kids trapped in a house in 20th century gangland Manchester, where they are menaced by supernatural or social forces. It shares some DNA with Oxblood.
You write: “Jim was naturally the first Dodds man to leave Angel Meadows when the City of Manchester claimed Wythenshawe; and later, with Mac, Jim claimed Wythenshawe from the City, and became its guvnor.” Did this sort of internal displacement create a different form of social relations and family crime – or was it the same but just a few miles out of town?
A complex question, maybe more one for a sociologist than a novelist. But it’s something I also tried to get at in a short story called Stuart Hall and Stuart Hall, which partly charts the migration of my maternal family: from Liberia to Hulme (inner Manchester) to Tameside (east Manchester), after the 1960s “slum clearance” demolished Hulme’s Victorian schools and back-to-backs; and then, for some, the return to Hulme, only for its vast deck-access flats to be demolished in the 1990s. The tale of a city is so often the tale of the working-class being pushed out, pushed in, under the caprice of myopic governance. Wythenshawe was conceived as a new town in the 1930s: as a modern, self-sufficient “garden city”. Displacement inevitably creates ruptures and discontinuity between generations. Old connections are strained, severed; new structures, identities and aspirations emerge. Some residents will forge a sense of pride and community. Others may mourn something lost: perhaps a past that has been denied them, or a future. Either way, external forces shape us: our values, status, opportunities. These bullying currents often keep us in or carry us out of our corner of the world. As for different forms of crime, opportunist sharks and scavengers roam all rings of society, from Number 10 down.
Much of the book is set in 1980s Manchester and yet it’s not the familiar one of Moss Side riots, decaying mills and Factory Records. Was it a relief to be able to paint a different picture of the city?
It wasn’t a conscious choice. I wrote the book that I could write, and tried to write it truthfully, rather than the book that was maybe more obvious or fashionable. With a city as storied as Manchester, it’s the footnotes that matter to me the most. The lost voices, whose forgotten stories complicate, undermine or enable the louder ones.
What are the challenges of depicting a haunting in the midst of such powerful realism?
The dead don’t haunt the living; it’s the living who haunt the dead. We haunt them in our heads, our homes. We carry these lost identities, places, people – rusty heirlooms of nostalgia or trauma – as we’re forever unable to reach and release them. Having a horny ghost in Oxblood was also a way of folding in some smut, joy and humour for what might otherwise be pure blood-and-thunder material.
The violent men are also mostly pathetically weak. The brutalised women have power they almost take for granted. Have they more in common than sets them apart?
Definitely. There’s a line in the book, after Nedra delivers her granddaughter’s baby, where the madness of this event is felt as restorative for Nedra, as leaving her “oxblooded”. She falsely believes that only through the consequences of reckless men do women like her find their worth, fortitude and purpose. It’s a lie that she needs to tell herself, otherwise what has she lived for? All her sacrifices have been for nothing. This blood courses through these characters as their strength and curse. The novel’s about three generations of mothers stuck in a haunted council house, each devoted to different forms of denial. It attempts to stitch their secrets and passions across two decades into a single pattern of resistance and recurring lines. These women were broken into separate islands by the ruinous disappointments of their men. But together, they can form a formidable whole.
Has the sort of generational enslavement of women you portray come to an end since the 1980s or does it persist?
Consumer choice and social media in the neoliberal age can give the illusion of agency but under patriarchy this problem still persists in myriad forms in which we’re all probably complicit. And injustice is always more/less acceptable depending on who and where people are, and their relative proximity to power. There is no clean and steady incline to generational progress. That’s a liberal delusion. Look at the recent challenge to Roe v Wade in the US. But that doesn’t mean the problem is not being contested. Perspectives change. Cultures change. Possible futures may be co-opted, compromised. But there will also be stubborn futures. Futures which won’t be bought.