This is the first novel from lawyer-turned-writer Shelley Day. It’s a magnificent depiction of family trauma as well as a cracking piece of crime fiction.
I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Day’s debut novel at Waterstones in Newcastle in July. Being seated between the children’s books and pregnancy guides in the store’s basement felt slightly off-kilter for the launch of a crime novel but it didn’t deter the crowds, who packed out the floor on a balmy Wednesday night.
Day is a charming woman. Clad in denim dungarees and embodying the ever so slightly bohemian air that writers do so well, she spoke to the crowd at length about her journey to becoming a writer and the task of bringing Stella Moon to life.
Shelley Day started life as a lawyer specialising in family law, criminal prosecutions and litigation. She moved into family psychology and became a successful researcher in the field before being made redundant in 2007. She took that as a sign to pursue her interest in writing – deciding to “live on lentils and write fiction” – and attended a week-long writing residential with Patrick Gale in 2008. In November 2011, she used Novel Writing Month as the impetus to produce the first draft of Stella’s story and has been tweaking it ever since, all the while searching for a publisher for her work.
She seemed to be a very instinctive writer, explaining at the launch that “everything I am and have experienced comes out in the way I write”. Day went on to detail how she “just gets a feeling about a character” and almost becomes possessed with them until the point they are fully realised on the page. In fact, she had to stop writing at times when the plot of this story became too harrowing, which it does on several occasions. The process appeared to consume Day entirely, giving herself completely until the stories had been exorcised from her imagination.
The Confession of Stella Moon is set in 1970s Newcastle but Day didn’t get too bogged down with details. Rather than pedantically researching that year’s weather or shop locations, Day followed her instincts again to create a sense of the city’s past that also facilitated her storytelling.
And, the book itself?
I’ve just finished reading it today and loved it. The story starts with Stella leaving prison after serving seven years for killing her mother. She returns to her native Newcastle to pick up her life but finds that fragments of the past are still there to haunt her, and that some secrets about her early life are yet to the unveiled. (I won’t say any more about the plot.)
For it being such a dark novel, I found it quite comforting and immediately familiar. Day’s use of local dialogue and Geordie turn of phase (the “back kitchen” aka the kitchen, “the passage” aka the hall) made me feel at home and reminded me of phrases my gran would use that are perhaps now fading from the lexicon of contemporary North Easterners. I doubt everyone will get this feeling from the novel but Newcastle-based folk certainly will.
The style and pace of writing in the opening chapters is frenetic and bordering on stream of consciousness at times. Day is, like she described at the launch, completely absorbed by Stella and the confusion, fear and anxiety Stella feels on the leaving prison are palpable.
Day’s writing is very detailed and she is able to conjure up vivid pictures of the grubby locations the characters find themselves in. Smells, in particular, come vividly off the page, and there is a tangible texture to the scenes she creates. It all adds to the eerie feeling of the book, and supports the sinister threads running through it.
My only criticism is that I felt the ending was a little rushed, and I would have liked more exploration of the scenes with Stella, Frank and Hedy Keating. Hedy is the key to a mayor piece of the plot and when Frank and Stella find her, I was expecting a detailed confessional that tied up much of the mystery that had preceded it. Instead, we are left with “Half an hour later, they are back outside” with Frank and Stella filling in the details for us.
However, that doesn’t take away from the larger themes Day explored in this novel. Identity, the impact of trauma, memories and how they form out current selves, and mother/daughter relationships all play out in this intriguing and complex novel.
Nobody said anything about how remembering can take away everything from under you and leave you with nothing, leave you not knowing what you’ve done or not done, or why or when or where.
Day said she is exploring the idea of a follow up, with Stella already possessing her thoughts. I hope she lets her out again as I’m eager to read more about this highly troubled and massively interesting character.