Caroline O’Donoghue shares some her inspiration behind The Rachel Incident…
James and Rachel are two 20-somethings who meet working at a bookshop in 2010. I set it in a bookshop because I had always worked in retail during college; I chose 2010 because it was a year when I felt very young, and very free. But until I added the bookshop element, I never considered that The Rachel Incident – my third novel for adults – was, in a sense, a period novel. Painful as it is to admit, 2010 now counts as ‘a period’. The more I researched, the more publishing fads of the day floated back to me like the ghost of Robert Marley, each one with their own ghostly lesson to impart.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was everywhere. I’m not sure anyone read it, but people bought it, and shops certainly had tables of it. It’s funny to look back at this now, but if you think like an anthropologist, it makes a kind of sense. The internet was up on its legs, and the sensibility that had grown with it was starting to stretch its tentacles outside of the computer and into real life. Being “random” was a thing that publishing was willing to try. Elsewhere in the 2010 bookshop was The Help By Kathryn Stockett, a novel about the American Civil Rights movement told primarily through a white saviour lens. Nobody seemed to think this was a problem. Not even when Stockett was sued by the Black maid who it was based on, and who found the depiction humiliating. And finally, there was the Kindle. For a long time it had been a whisper in the wind, but by 2010, it was on everyone’s Christmas list. Terror was struck deep in the heart of book shops. They felt an oddly familiar brand of anxiety, common to Victorian factory workers and Oscar-nominated screenwriters: what if the robot takes my job?
Quickly I realised that a book shop, far from being a cosy backdrop for the novel, could be part of the action itself. Or rather, that a bookshop is a living, breathing organism that doesn’t merely stand still on the high street, waiting for us to find comfort or wisdom in it. The world presses in on the bookshop. The world changes it. As the effects of the 2008 financial crash begin to trickle down to Rachel and James, we see their hours cut, and quickly after, their pay. They use the hardback memoirs of disgraced politicians to stymy flood damage. Bookish internships are slavishly worked for, and then seem to count for nothing. There is a huge indignity, I think, to being 22 and realising that the world’s problems are yours too.
It’s this world that Rachel and James are forced to make terrible decisions in: decisions that lead to affairs, extortion, and exile. It’s a hell of a ride. And it all begins, as I say, in a bookshop.
You can pre-order The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue on our website.