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Fenland author Penny Hancock pens family drama

Cambridge author Penny Hancock’s new novel I Thought I Knew You is about secrets and lies – and whose side you take when it really matters.

Author Penny Hancock. (7774546)
Author Penny Hancock. (7774546)

Who do you know better? Your oldest friend? Or your child? And who should you believe when one accuses the other of an abhorrent crime?

Jules and Holly have been best friends since university. They tell each other everything, trading revelations and confessions, and sharing both the big moments and the small details of their lives: Holly is the only person who knows about Jules’s affair; Jules was there for Holly when her husband died. And their two children – just three years apart – have grown up together.

So when Jules’s daughter Saffie makes a serious allegation against Holly’s son Saul, neither woman is prepared for the devastating impact this will have on their friendship or their families. Especially as Holly, in spite of her principles, refuses to believe her son is guilty.

What inspired you to write about the situation facing the two friends in I Thought I Knew You?

It was a column in The Guardian where they have an anonymous letter, and this one was from the mother of a girl who was raped to the mother of the boy who raped her. It was saying that it’s really horrible being the mother of a girl who was raped but it must be much worse being the mother of a boy who is a rapist. In the letter the women didn’t know each other but it I started to wonder about what it would be like if they were friends and what would it do to the friendship, so that is where the idea came from initially.

I Thought I Knew You, by Penny Hancock (7780304)
I Thought I Knew You, by Penny Hancock (7780304)

The central question in the book is about who you would believe in this situation. How do the two women respond?

Holly, the mother of the boy, is a pro consent campaigner and university lecturer. She is working in a university supporting students with their consent workshops. So when her son is accused she is going against all her prinicoles in not believing that he did it. There is a conflict for her. I wanted to look at where political meets personal and because Holly is very adamant that all girls should be believed first and foremost, her friend is shocked when her son is accused but she won’t believe the girl.

You don’t know until the end whether he is the rapist or not, but obviously Holly’s friend Jules, the mother of the girl, thinks that he is and she is going to believe her daughter over and above anybody else, including her best friend.

Would you always take your own children’s side?

I would always believe my own child over a friend. My daughters are grown up now but when one of them was about 11 a mum phoned me and said she was involved in bullying someone with a group of friends and I couldn’t believe that she was involved unless she was bullied herself into doing it. So I think i would instinctively take my child’s side.

You’ve set the book in a fenland village. Does village gossip make the situation worse?

Originally I was going to set it in London, but then I thought it would be much more intense if it was in a small community where the mums are rubbing against each other at every occasion and they they can’t get any space between them. So I decided to make them really good friends ever since they went to university together and they have already been through a lot together. I wanted this allegation to really threaten their friendship and as they both live in a small village in the fens they can’t really get away from each other.

There is a scene where the women bump into each other on a fenland road and it is raining and there is nobody else about. One of the particular features about the fens is it is flat and there is nothing to hide behind so they can’t avoid each other. I wanted to put them in that position in a way where even though they weren’t wanting to discuss it with each other because it was too hurtful they had to confront each other

You live in the fens, is it set in your village?

I have sort of based it on my village but I haven’t named it and I have used some poetic licence about where things are. But I wanted it to be a similar kind of size of village where there is a close community, which is good in many ways and it is quote supportive but if there is a bit of gossip it goes around before you know it.

Have you experienced the effects of village gossip?

I have observed it but i haven’t been at the receiving end of it. I have to be careful what I say!

I have seen it happen and how people tend to take sides and things can get out of proportion. I have probably been guilty of it myself. You make assumptions about things. It happens in any group of people and can happen in London but somehow in a village it is more concentrated. On the other hand it can be very supportive.

What do the characters think of village life?

The main character holly has moved from london and she feels very out of place and she feels a little bit as if she is judged as an outsider and is someone who doesn’t have the same values as local people. Maybe she is a bit more bohemian or a bit more relaxed in her liberal views. You feel like a fish out of water when you are used to living in a big cosmopolitan city moving to the countryside can feel it is like it is a kind of culture shock.

It is 25 years ago now since I moved out of London. My daughters are grown up and now live in London and I go back there a lot.

Why did you choose the title?

It is called I Thought I Knew You because it is about the way all these relationships are affected by this one allegation. It's just about the fact that they don’t know the people closest to them. The new husband of Holly, Pete, has two daughters and he immediately takes them away to their mum when he hears about this rape allegation. So she suddenly realises he will put his daughters before her son and she hadn’t really seen that before. She finds out something about her husband who has died, too. Everyone has different side to them and something that is surprising. The title refers to almost everyone in the book.

I Thought I Knew You by Penny Hancock is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £12.99. She will be signing books at Heffers on March 28 at 6.30pm.

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