Harriet Cummings explores the human psyche and the importance of human relationships in her debut period crime novel
Set in a small village in the mid-80s, Harriet Cummings brings us her debut novel, We All Begin As Strangers. The tale revolves around a cryptic figure nicknamed the Fox and the disappearance of a young woman named Anna. Before Anna’s disappearance, the residents of the village took an arguably light-hearted view of the Fox, relaying stories about him. Nonetheless, sooner rather than later, tensions and suspicions arise, and with it, distrust and accusations.
The story is loosely based on true happenings that occurred during the time in which the novel is set. Inhabitants of small provisional villages came together to protect themselves after a pattern of armed burglaries, rape and indecent assault had occurred in their neighbourhoods. Cummings took inspiration from these events after the story had lingered in the back of her mind for many years. When we got in contact with her and asked why this particular historical incident, Cummings said: “It felt powerful to me. I always wondered exactly why the Fox was compelled to spend time in these people’s homes. The rapes and attacks are, of course, one thing, but to look through private photographs and other possessions is quite another.” There was a want to understand what kind of voyeuristic pleasure or satisfaction was gained, and what would drive a person to do this in the first place. From here, Cummings conceived her fictional story – the true events merely a seed to what blossomed into quite a fascinating tale.
Cummings did, however, leave out the more malevolent characteristic of the Fox, that being his tendency to rape and abuse his victims. It was a personal choice made by the author and was partly due to the fact that she, as a reader, predominantly doesn’t like violent stories, specifically ones involving violence of the sexual nature. Additionally, the violent aspects of the true story held inferior interest to her in contrast to the curious quality of the voyeurism. It cannot be denied that the Fox’s lack of violence, in actuality, did increase the sinister vibe of the novel, as his motives remained unclear. There’s an almost ghost-story-like ambience that sweeps across the novel. The Fox could very well have been a phantom – he eerily observed the homeowners, moved a few things around, and left with his scent behind as evidence of his presence. This atmosphere feeds into the fear of the unknown that is present in all humans – a violent person wants to hurt, to have power, but what does a person who just comes to watch want exactly?
What must be praised about this novel, first and foremost, is Cummings’ skill in her detailed world-building. Having been raised in the metropolis of London for nearly my entire life, village life is not something that I would say I was well acquainted with. I’m often told by both family and friends that I need to get out more, see how other people live. It is due to writers like Cummings that I find myself lost in books rather than the outside world. She does an excellent job in transporting the reader to unfamiliar territory, and presenting the small-town claustrophobia where word travels fast and everyone knows everyone’s business.
The story is told from different perspectives, allowing every significant character to develop an actual personality. While there is logic behind the order of viewpoints, the initial character’s point of view was rather slow and did make getting into the story quite difficult. The sluggish build does require some patience on part of the reader, and I’ll admit, is the reason why it took me a while to complete the novel, and even go so far as to skip parts. This is probably the only evidence that We All Begin As Strangers is Cummings’ first novel – her clear difficulty in balancing the descriptive narrative of the world she creates with character action. Having said that, the detail and care taken in constructing the setting and the story is interesting in and of itself.
Cummings opted to write from multiple views as a way to explore different sides of Anna’s personality and the village in general. She said that she “also liked the idea that each character forms a different relationship with the idea of the Fox being in their home, each sharing something in common with this mysterious person.” This created a complex relationship between the villagers and the Fox – there was no simple dichotomy labelling the villagers as exclusively innocent and the Fox as the clear antagonist. Everyone has secrets they wish to keep close to their chests, and in a small village where everyone thinks they know their neighbour, the secrets hold greater weight. This angle of taking multiple points of view, I feel, was pivotal to what I consider to be the core of the novel, and that is to explore the significance of human connections.
To surmise, the story as a dark crime novel is done well and Cummings’ skills are well-demonstrated. Though pacing could be improved, she does not fail in creating characters with substance and a world that is vivid and real. Whether you like this novel or not, Cummings’ talent as a writer is unarguably remarkable, and her future in the literary arts looks bright.
For fans of the novel, you’ll be happy to know that Cummings is working on her second book, this time a contemporary dark drama.
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