A toxic family Christmas – Amy Bird, author of Hide and Seek explores the danger of relationships pushed to the edge
Picture the Christmas dinner table. Everyone laughing happily as the champagne bubbles go up their nose, crackers explode, and the Christmas pudding is set alight just in time for you to devour it while watching the Queen. Goodwill to all men, women, children and family pets.
No? Not that rosy? Is it more whispered conversations taking place with your sister in the kitchen while your mother pours more sherry in the lounge? Toxicity as the sprouts are passed; carving up of more than the turkey?
Every family has its secrets and its tensions. These are more likely to be apparent at Christmas. Even if only by the failure to mention them. Everyone knows that beneath the surface, the resentment is simmering like mulled wine. Maybe they are secrets about marital intrigue, a suspected illness, an unforgivable slight. When those secrets fester alongside already damaged relationships, those relationships go from ones of gently bubbling resentment to boiling toxicity. Just so in my new novel Hide and Seek.
There are some classic, almost stereotypical difficult relationships in families. The mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law is one example. That subtle competition for the son’s affections might seem dated, anti-feminist even. But nonetheless there is often a latent power play beneath the surface, the battle to show who knows best, who now has the ear of the contested male. In Hide and Seek, we see this contest. Will’s wife, Ellie, is one of the three first-person narrators. Gillian, Will’s mother, is also a central character. The mistrust and latent enmity between the two women had already been established by Gillian’s overbearing and insensitive nature, unpalatable to Ellie’s sparky and independent nature. So when Ellie suspects Gillian of harbouring a secret that is fundamental to Will’s identity, a battle begins. The dinner table is where the gauntlet is thrown down. Good table manners and a polite façade cannot hide the challenge that Ellie makes.
But that is a relationship already gone bad, waiting to turn. What about relationships that seemed strong and healthy? Secrets threaten to destroy them too. Ellie does not tell husband Will everything she has discovered about his past, the past he does not yet know. That is not only a betrayal, it’s the re-writing of rules. In a relationship where everything was shared, suddenly secrets are acceptable. That means each can follow their own obsessions without the other knowing, until it is too late, and both are in danger. This is not a new device, of course. The classic contemporary example of martial toxicity is Gone Girl. Only in those relationships in which the couple know each other utterly can the full knowledge of how to betray and conceal be exploited.
So what is the point of all this toxicity? What is the effect upon the reader? I wanted to create a novel in which the reader can see clearly the treachery that is being practised, the personal obsessions that are driving characters onwards, and the weight of the secrets they hide from each other. This, on its own, is not enough. It is the consequences of those characters’ actions within their respective destructive relationships that drives the plot onwards. The battle over the secrets becomes a battle, ultimately, over life itself. The characters may come to realise they have gone wrong, that they need to save their relationships, themselves and each others. But by that point, it may to be too late to cleanse what has gone before.
Remember, then, as you sit down for your Christmas lunch that one jibe too far, one ‘accidental’ dig in the ribs, could be the move that pushes an already toxic relationship over the edge. Maybe we’re not talking murder here. Maybe we are. But why risk the catalyst. Surely you want to be there to see in the New Year. With your friends. With whom there are no tensions at all. Right?
Amy Bird’s third thriller Hide and Seek (Carina UK, a digital imprint of Harlequin, £2.99) is out now.
You can also follow Amy @london_writer or find her at www.amybirdwrites.com