It's always real life that sets me off on a story (writes Cathy MacPhail). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Thérèse Raquin appeals to me so much. It was inspired by a story in a newspaper. My book Roxy's Baby was inspired by an item on the radio, Grass by graffiti on a wall, and my first book, Run Zan Run, by the awful bullying my younger daughter had to suffer in her first year at high school. I was so frustrated and angry about what was happening to my daughter that I decided to write a book about it. And when I was asked to write another, I just took the same elements of Run Zan Run, the basis of a real life story, a fast moving mystery, good characters and an exciting climax, and I came up with Fighting Back.
Catherine MacPhail on Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola
I first read Thérèse Raquin when I was fourteen. One of four sisters, I grew up adoring Little Women, wanted to live in their world. At twelve I fell in love with Mr Darcy, wished I was Elizabeth Bennet, and then I read Thérèse Raquin. There was nothing sweet in this book, nothing elegant or clever. But there was gritty reality, despair, passion, murder and even a ghost story for good measure. I also remember reading there was an outcry about it when it was published, calling it pornography. How could a teenager resist reading a book like that?
Thérèse Raquin lives a hopeless life with her husband/cousin Camille and his mother. Thérèse is docile, downtrodden, yet as a child she shows her hidden passion in a fight with Camille. A sign of things to come. Thérèse works every day in the shop they have bought in one of the back streets of Paris. A dark, dismal little shop, reflecting Thérèse's dark, dismal life. She thinks of it as a newly dug grave. Buried alive. A theme that goes all through the book.
Camille finds work on the railway, and meets Lauren, a childhood friend. And though he isn't, never could be, a Mr Darcy, or even a Laurie, Lauren has a magnetism that appealed to my fourteen-year-old soul: brooding and scary, watching Thérèse, wanting her but not half as much as she wants him. He knows he can have her, and he does. No tenderness, no words of love, just passion. When they become lovers, Thérèse loses all her inhibitions, and that is when she totally captivates Lauren. They want to be together forever and the only way to do that is to kill Camille. On a boat trip on the lake, they drown him, but Camille for all his sickliness does not die easily. He bites Lauren on the neck and that bite mark never leaves Lauren, a constant reminder of the man they killed.
Madame Raquin suffers a stroke after hearing of her beloved son's death, buried alive in her own body, and Thérèse is trapped again. How can she leave a severely disabled aunt? And yet Madame Raquin is happy. It is she who wants her 'beloved children', Thérèse and Lauren, to marry. And docile Thérèse pretends to agree, just to please her.
A kind of happy ending? Not for Thérèse and Lauren. From their wedding night on, the ghost of Camille comes between them. Each night is a nightmare for them. Even though they had murdered him, I yearned for them to be together. I was fourteen; I wanted passion to win over everything else.
Thérèse and Lauren begin to hate and mistrust each other. And all the time, Madame Raquin watches them, silently thinking that for all her heartbreak, the worst is over. She is wrong. They give themselves away, not realizing that she hears and understands them. And here is a flaw in the book: instead of letting us hear Thérèse and Lauren revealing their guilt - and what a breathtaking moment that would be - what Zola gives us is Lauren in a 'sort of hysterical fit', letting their dark secret slip. There is a lot of 'tell' in Thérèse Raquin, but even when you realize that, the story has such pace and tension it just carries you along.
They have friends, including a Chief Superintendent, who come regularly to play cards, and Madame Raquin makes a great effort to try to spell their guilt out. It is a moment full of suspense, but the other card players think she is only praising Thérèse and Lauren for their loving care of her.
Lauren is sure Thérèse will go to the police, confess everything, but instead her guilt turns Thérèse to prostitution, and Lauren, almost glad, turns to the women of the streets. Prostitution and vice? You have to admit, this book has everything.
And it's still not finished. Because, finally, they are disgusted with each other and their thoughts turn once again to murder.
When they realize what they are each planning to do, there is a moment of tenderness and understanding between them. They see what they have become. They both drink the poison. The only way they can find peace.
I loved the last line, where Madame Raquin, stiff and silent, watches their bodies lying on the floor, 'unable to feast her eyes enough, eyes that crushed them with brooding hate'.
This is a story that could happen any time, anywhere. A tribal village in Africa, the inner cities of Glasgow or Liverpool, a trailer park in the United States. It was inspired by a story Zola read in the paper. You can read the same stories today. And for all the drama, it is a very moral tale. You cannot get away with murder. If the law doesn't get you, your own guilt will.
Yes, a potboiler. Yes, over the top drama. It doesn't miss a trick. But it is a fantastic story, and I love it.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]