… how preconceptions and prejudices can pervert the truth
It’s quite ironic, that when Jennie Ensor first approached me about Blind Side I was facing a backlog of reviews and wary of taking on more; when she pitched it as a ‘psychological thriller set before, during and after the 7/7 London terror attacks‘ I admit I did have reservations about the 7/7 element – presuming how it would be incorporated – but on the whole as I usually love a good thriller and liked the premise (and always keen to support Unbound authors) I agreed to review… and I’m so pleased I did… from both a reader and a writer’s perspective.
At the heart of Blind Side is a love-story – the classic love triangle of one woman and two men – that explores many issues of relationships and human behaviour ‘love and friendship, guilt and betrayal, secrets and obsession‘ but more interestingly, importantly, also ‘confronts urgent issues of our times and contemplates some of our deepest fears.‘ Indeed, in Blind Side Ensor skillfully combines political and thriller elements, but while the aspects of 7/7 undoubtedly colour the story and heighten the gripping nature they add to the story, not detract like I feared.
The love-story begins with the protagonist, Georgie – a single woman on the cusp of 30 – who wants a relationship but not just with anyone. Although the story is told almost entirely from her perspective, as she has a rather raw and honest, self-deprecating demeanour we learn of her insecurities and flaws; a growing dissatisfaction with work, a sense of abandonment from her mother leaving when she was young, struggling to live up to her father’s expectations and hurt from an earlier relationship, Georgie certainly is an unhappy character spiralling into turmoil and ‘can’t risk falling in love again.’ While some may find her cold – or even fulfilling the now popular unlikeable heroine stance – for me that made her all the more interesting, especially as we see do her grow throughout the story.
Julian is her platonic – ‘we’re not fuck buddies‘ – friend from University, who Georgie confesses originally found ‘a bit of a geek’ but did find humour beneath his reserve.The shared issues with their mothers help, although Julian’s died rather than choosing to leave, we do get an early clue to his character when Georgie admits ‘it struck me odd that he decided he “couldn’t be bothered” to go to her funeral.’ Despite being just friends the story kicks off shortly after Valentine’s Day when Julian has already smudged the boundaries by buying Georgie expensive jewellery instead of the usual silly card then orchestrates them getting wasted and coerces her to have sex which she immediately regrets; especially when he confesses to loving her and having done so for a while. That she doesn’t feel the same way fuels a switch in Julian’s behaviour towards her and ignites a bitter jealousy, especially when he discovers Georgie has met Nikolai…
‘Our conversation is stilted; short bursts breaking long silences. The rules between us have changed. I feel as if I’m driving a car for the first time, trying not to stall the engine or rev it too much in case it goes out of control.
“Fancy catching a band later?” His voice is hopeful.
I spoon the froth off the top of my cappuccino. 2I’m tired, I don’t want a late night.” It’s true enough.
Neither of us speaks for a while. Julian folds over the used portion of his sugar packet.
“Where were you when I called?”
“I called Thursday night, after I got your text. You didn’t answer.”
“Oh, I was in the pub, that’s all. The music was pretty loud.”
“I popped into one after work.”
“That’s not like you. I thought you said you had loads of stuff to get done for your campaign.”
“I just felt like it, that’s all. I took the wrong turn and saw this lively- looking place…’
” Did you meet anyone interesting?”
“Only some Russian guy…”
“Russians – they’re all over London, these days.” He says this as if they’re cockroaches. He looks at me intently. “You’re going to see him again?”
“I doubt it,” I reply. “He was an interesting guy – but I’m not sure. There was something a bit… edgy about him.”
Julian’s face is blank, as if everything behind it has shut down. The only movement in his body is his chest as it rises and falls. His lips are slightly parted and I can hear his breathing.
“He sounds a total arsehole.”
I pull my hand away, shocked. Julian never uses that kind of language.
“If I were you, ” he adds, “I wouldn’t have anything more to do with him.”‘
And there lies Georgie’s dilemma. The shift in Julian’s behaviour towards her and the xenophobic reaction to Nikolai – which sadly echoes the current issues in today’s Britain – makes her question their friendship as it soon becomes clear his jealousy is becoming a nasty obsession.
But falling in love with Nikolai isn’t straightforward. An ex-soldier who fought in Chechnya with extremely troubled memories – his circumstances and reasons for being in London are as he says ‘best she doesn’t know’ and some of his actions and connections make her question him…
‘Do I need to be scared of getting involved with him? Undoubtedly, there are good reasons not to. I have no idea how long he’ll be around. Apart from that he’s troubled, to say the least. His idea that someone was following him… Is he delusional?’
As Georgie gets to know Nikolai and his story unfolds, Julian becomes increasingly jealous and his obsession more intense; the backdrop of London in 2005 – events leading up to during and after 7/7 – are an excellent narrative technique for adding exposition, tone and mood to the thriller aspects of Blind Side which Jennie incorporates deftly and it really highlights and questions current prejudices… this backdrop didn’t overshadow the story as I feared, indeed it feels like an imperative additional character very well executed.
I’m delighted to welcome Jennie to poppypeacockpens to talk about writing and her debut…
Can you tell me a little more about your writing background and lead up to Blind Side… I believe it is your debut novel?
Yes, Blind Side is my first published novel and my first finished-and-happy-with-it one. I’ve been writing for about 15 years, novels along with poetry and occasional short stories. I had faith I would find a publisher one day, though sometimes that seemed like an impossible dream. Probably I haven’t helped myself by choosing quite challenging subjects and not thinking commercially at all until recently. I’ve tried all sorts of writing over the years from journalist to copywriter, but writing novels is my absolute favourite thing, I can’t imagine ever stopping this!
For me Blind Side is an intricate weave of three elements of genre: love story, political and thriller. Can you tell me a little about the origins of the story and if including all these genre elements was your initial intention or a by-product?
I didn’t give much thought to the genre of my book until quite recently – the characters, story and themes came first. I wanted to explore how people psychologically damaged by their life experiences may or may not overcome them. Georgie hasn’t got over her childhood sense of abandonment that overshadows all her relationships and has made do with the repressed Julian, whose early experiences have left their mark. Ex-soldier Nikolai, scarred by incidents in Chechnya, asks her to take the emotional risk of getting close to him… That is the basis for the love story/love triangle – the thriller and political elements were entwined from the start. However I did work on strengthening the tension in the final draft by adding certain terrorism-related plot points, for example, in order to ramp up the ‘grip-lit’ factor!
Being in the present tense and first person narrative of protagonist Georgie certainly adds to the sense of it being an immediate story, gripping the reader’s attention… was this always the case or did you explore alternatives?
Blind Side was originally written all from Georgie’s perspective in the past tense, though with many swathes of present tense that I switched to past after some adverse comments. Then my editor at Unbound suggested switching the whole thing back to present tense(!), which I agreed worked much better.
Set in London during 2005 – the year of 7/7 – provides excellent exposition; many, if not all readers, will be aware of the events of that year and indeed the ongoing implications and threat. It provides an ideal backdrop without having to go too deep or dwell on the actual events, so the key story remains that of your characters, not a 7/7 spin-off; was that your intention? How did you incorporate and manage the true events without them taking over?
I started planning the novel late in 2004. After London was attacked on 7 July, when some of the bombers’ Yorkshire backgrounds came out, it struck me how well those events fitted my theme of ‘the enemy within’. I decided to set the novel in London during 2005, incorporating the 7/7 attacks along with other events of that year. That led me to exploring suspicion, prejudice and terrorism in its various guises.
I definitely intended 7/7 to feature in Blind Side without dominating or detracting from my characters, as it might easily have done. Most Londoners have their own experiences of the bombings, which in any case have already been heavily reported, and of course many people have been deeply affected on a personal level. As to the how, I think it was about knowing what to keep real and what could be imagined, while keeping the essence of the story I wanted to tell uppermost in mind. I kept a diary and held onto newspapers from that period, which helped me with the real-life framework. Reading about actual incidents also prompted me to imagine all sorts of other stuff.
One of the key themes is the prejudice and suspicion surrounding Nikolai; how and why did you decide on and develop his story, especially regarding his Russian/Chechnya background which I found intriguing as opposed to say a more obvious Middle East origin, given the 7/7 link?
I knew Nikolai would be a wounded soldier from the start; the Russian background came after I’d been shocked to read about the terrible conditions in which Russian soldiers fought and the devastation resulting from Russia’s bombing of Grozny in 1999. I thought it would be interesting to create a character who was a victim of this particular war – and on a serious note I do think it’s our duty to remember all who suffer in war, whether civilians or servicemen, wherever they are in the world. In addition I’d found out from internet research about radical Chechens infiltrating London universities and various other things, which provided inspiration for the plot.
Exposition is a slippery narrative tool to master; knowing Julian’s thoughts and intentions – despite the bulk of the narrative being from Georgie’s perspective – really adds to the tension and sense of threat from within, running parallel to the backdrop threat of terrorism. How did you decide when and how to interject these?
When I first wrote down Julian’s thoughts they flowed very easily and seemed to take on a life of their own… fittingly, given I wanted to highlight the insecure, obsessive aspects of his character. The sections narrated by Julian let the reader see things that Georgie doesn’t, which I’d hoped would increase the tension at various stages in the plot. Julian’s sections pop up every so often – the placement was partly intuitive, trying to keep to a loose rhythm and to maximise the ‘creep-out factor’ 🙂
Still concentrating on narrative tools, how and why did you choose to include the Epigraph & Prologue?
The poem in the epigraph seems to convey the importance of living and loving while we can, which is alluded to in my novel. The version of the poem I have at home is in a battered old paperback of Boris Pasternak poems, very much like the one Nikolai lends Georgie – and Pasternak is mentioned by Nikolai to Georgie when they first meet.
The prologue skips ahead in time and gives a taste of what happens near the end of the novel but without any explanation. This is a signpost to the type of novel (a thriller as much as a story about love and friendship) as well as a way to increase intrigue and tension.
Finally, what led to the book being crowdfunded; can you tell us a little of the journey to becoming an author with Unbound?
My manuscript was accepted by Unbound in late 2015 conditional on me crowdfunding the cost of publication. (A big risk but I was drawn to them for their commitment to producing high quality books – and their effortlessly cool vibe.) The crowdfunding took 3 months and became rather fraught in the end as I wasn’t sure I’d make my target funds in the time expected. But I did (thanks to my stubbornness, good luck and some amazingly generous friends, family members and fellow writers) and embarked pretty quickly on several rounds of editing and cover design. Though not entirely stress-free (many decisions and little time!), working with a top editor and designer was a rewarding experience, a nice change after years of writing away in solitude. Blind Side came out on 22 July 2016 and was the first title on Unbound’s digital list.
BLIND SIDE published by Unbound July 22 2016
Now available in eCopy: