Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Skeleton in the Cupboard
I have always been fascinated by the dynamics of families and the relationships between family members. Perhaps this is why I love reading sagas and try to write them myself. The way family members act and react towards one another is fascinating - often surprising and sometimes shocking! Is it nature or nurture that makes a person behave in a certain way?  Can you inherit someone's personality and temperament in the same way as you do their physical characteristics? Are those personality traits embedded from birth or can they change in a different environment?
Many novels, not necessarily only sagas, involve a secret - 'a skeleton in the cupboard' -   that is never discussed and is hidden away for generations. The big reveal is often the crux of the story and is what makes the reader keep turning the pages. For some years, I subscribed to 'Your Family Tree', a family history magazine. In each publication, the back page feature was always devoted to a 'Skeleton in the Cupboard!' Readers were invited to send in an article of 700 words telling of a secret in their own families. They ranged from keeping mistresses and adultery, bigamy, murder, imprisonment, debt, sexual and physical abuse. The list was endless. In the past, secrets about illegitimacy, disability and insanity were all considered to bring shame on the family and family members who were disabled or suffering from mental illness would be hidden away. Fictional accounts of similar family situations find their way into many of our stories.
Here are a few novels I've thoroughly enjoyed reading that have secrets at their heart: 

'A Time for Silence' by Thorne Moore.
Publisher: Honno Welsh Women's Press
ISBN -13: 978-1906784454 
The main character, Sarah, stumbles across her grandparents' ruined farm and begins to delve into her family history. She learns that her grandfather had been murdered but no one had told her. She determines to find out what happened but perhaps there are some family secrets that should never be revealed. 

'A Simple Life'  by Rosie Thomas
Publisher: Harper Collins (now an e-book)
The main character, Dinah Shepherd, has a shameful secret that has haunted her for fifteen years. She has a comfortable family life with her two sons but a choice she and her husband made all those years before is never referred to. She finally decides to confront the truth and risks everything to claim what is rightfully hers. 

'The Kashmir Shawl' by Rosie Thomas
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0007285976
When Mair Ellis clears out her father's house, she finds an antique shawl with a lock of child's hair wrapped up in its folds. Tracing her family history back to a time spent in Kashmir where her grandparents were missionaries, Mair uncovers a story of doomed love and great sacrifice.

'The Hand That First Held Mine' by Maggie O'Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
ISBN: 978-0755308460
A dual narrative, the story tells of Lexi Sinclair carving a new life for herself in London, at the heart of the 1950s art scene. In the parallel story, fifty years later, Ted is disturbed to realise that memories of his childhood do not tally with his parents' version of events. His search for answers lead to uncovering a secret that had been hidden from him.

In my own novels, secrets play an important part, too. In 'A Mother's Secret', details about forbidden love, illegitimacy and imprisonment for Black Market dealing are kept well hidden from the younger generations of the family. In novel two, 'Whispering Olive Trees', secrets about a young woman's time spent in Greece involving a love affair, murder and drug dealing only come to light after her death when she bequeaths her diary to her daughter. 

What novel involving a family secret or 'skeleton in the cupboard' have you read and enjoyed? I'd love to hear your recommendations. Thank you.

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.


  1. What a wonderful idea for a blog, Jan. The skeleton in the family cupboard is such a good device for a strong plot and of course every time it is used, it is different and fresh and compelling. I recently read 'Secrets of the Singer Girls' by Kate Thompson and, as the title suggests, that is full of secrets that are gradually shared with the reader. Having enjoyed that, I am now reading 'Secrets of the Sewing Bee.' Both are WW2 Home Front sagas.

    1. Thank you, Sue. I like the sound of both your recommendations and shall look out for them. I particularly like novels set in or just after World War 2 when life was very different.

  2. Great choices, Jan - especially Thorne Moore's 'A Time for Silence', a favourite of mine too.

    1. Thanks, Sara. I love Thorne's writing and remember not being able to put 'A Time for Silence' down.

  3. Great post, Jan & a fascinating topic. You know I'm an admirer of Thorne's writing & I love Maggie O'Farrell too. I've read all her novels & each one has a secret of some kind. Like you I'm both drawn to family secrets & I write about them. I'm revelling in my current one - it has a twist! xXx

    1. Thank you, Carol. You've now whetted my appetite even more as I eagerly await book three.

  4. Thank you, Jan for the boost. Great post. :)

    1. Thanks, Thorne. As you know, I've enjoyed all your books and their secrets. I hope there's another one on its way.

  5. I'm not that keen on secrets in stories - perhaps the few I've read were bad examples - I nearly always find it unlikely that they wouldn't either just tell other family members, or ensure it never ever came to light. They generally seem to not say, but keep some proof which gives it away.

    1. It’s interesting you feel differently about secrets, Patsy. I think that in historical novels, which I enjoy, the social conventions of the time would sometimes deter people telling other family members and often the secret only comes to light after the character’s death or moved on.