I think most of us readers know when we’ve stumbled onto something universally powerful. Books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, WAR AND PEACE, THE NIGHTINGALE take us on journeys we know from the start are going to be painful. Yet we are intrigued by the premise and the promise of a glimpse of life that we are not familiar with. And though that trepidation haunts us, we can’t put the book down because the story and the writing are so compelling.
After getting on Twitter last year, I discovered Kerensa Jennings and her book SEAS OF SNOW. I downloaded a sample and was immediately drawn in by the writing. It was captivating, but also ominous. At the end of the sample, I had to ask myself if I was up to pursuing a novel that was sure to lead me into a dark, perhaps tragic place. Though I opted for lighter fare, I ultimately came back to it.
I guess the power of the written word is its ability to change one’s perception of life. Or at least challenge it. As I read through beautiful passages of love and friendship that snaked toward a deceptive menace, I experienced a kaleidoscope of emotions. To find out later the book was based on a true story made it that much more profound.
It’s my pleasure to share Kerensa Jennings’ Story Behind the Story of THE SEAS OF SNOW on the day it has become available in paperback one year after its tremendous debut:
As a journalist who worked in television for many years, I was exposed to some of the best and worst of humanity. I have filmed in refugee camps where former child soldiers were teaching little children how to read and write. Directed the shoot of a life-saving quadruple heart by-pass operation. Made films for Make Poverty History, Comic Relief and Live8. Seen horrific rushes of suicide bombings, raw footage from terrorist attacks (including 9/11), and the unedited aftermaths of devastating earthquakes and floods.
When I was Programme Editor of Breakfast with Frost with Sir David Frost, I was lucky enough to make programmes with a host of the world’s most famous people including world leaders, and stars from stage, screen, sport and music. The programme with Nelson Mandela is one of the highlights of my life—such an inspiring man. Such an extraordinary life.
Nothing I experienced throughout my TV career affected me as profoundly, or impacted me as emotionally, as the Soham Investigation. This was a deeply upsetting case where a school caretaker called Ian Huntley had murdered two little girls. Ten years old and full of dazzling life. That man took everything those little girls had away from them. Destroyed their families. Eviscerated a community. Horrified a nation.
I was leading the BBC News coverage of the case. And it affected me profoundly.
As the months wore on, we learned more about what happened, and the mind and motives of that man. A picture of a psychopath emerged. Repeated behaviours, perverse inclinations, monstrous outcomes. I cried myself to sleep, privately, and often.
In the years that followed I wanted to learn more about what makes us human. What makes us do what we do. The heart, the brain, the soul. The nuances and subtleties and differences between us. Whether evil is born or made.
The BBC had been selected by Cambridgeshire Constabulary to work closely with them during the months of the investigation. They had quite rightly responded to the extraordinary levels of public interest in the case and wanted to be able to tell their story. They felt a huge responsibility to do the right thing by the families and friends of the two little girls whose lives were so brutally stolen from them. The community in Soham discovered they had a killer in their midst, and two people who were prepared to hide in plain sight, telling lies after lies after lies to anyone who would listen. The nation was appalled and devastated that a man employed as a school caretaker could have committed such a monstrous act.
I led the BBC News and Current Affairs coverage of the investigation. What this entailed included becoming very familiar with the evidence the police gathered and gaining an insight into the way they worked.
On one particular day, I was in a dark room by myself, spooling through tapes of police evidence, marking up the sections I thought we might want to use in the BBC coverage. I came across a tape marked ‘Deposition Site’. I just popped it into the machine and began to watch. The footage showed the girls’ remains, which had been discovered in woodland around RAF Lakenheath. The images burned into my retina.
A number of months later, as a member of the media, I had to sit behind the school caretaker, Ian Huntley, day after day after day at the Old Bailey. I felt overcome by revulsion. To this day, I’d say it is the most gruelling and emotionally draining experience of my life.
During the intervening months, I reflected long and hard on all the evidence, including some of the other police tapes I had watched, such as the significant witness interviews of both Ian Huntley and his then live-in girlfriend, classroom assistant Maxine Carr. It was staggering to see with my own eyes the blatant lies that were told, with such conviction and plausibility. Despite all the mountain of evidence that proved they were speaking well-rehearsed lines, not truths.
I developed a fascination for trying to understand what on earth could motivate a person to behave in such an inhuman way. I found myself seeking out articles, books and academic studies about psychopaths. I even ended up training and qualifying as an Executive Coach so I could formally learn the disciplines of psychology. I wanted to explore whether evil is born or made, which is the question at the heart of SEAS OF SNOW.
I learned that psychopaths are incapable of feeling empathy. They can manipulate and lie with ease. They can be charming and believable. They are often with us across society, hiding in plain sight. The difference is, not everyone born a psychopath ends up committing horrific acts.
I ended up writing my story as a process of catharsis. I always find I am able to process my emotions and responses to things most effectively when I write. I also drew on other themes that have absorbed me for years—such as good versus evil; fairy tales; and the way poetry can offer solace and escape from life’s greatest torments.
I also wanted the story to hopefully touch readers, and to create that feeling in them of wanting to hug the children in their lives that little bit tighter. It’s crime fiction, a psychological thriller, and draws also on fairy tale for inspiration with both poetry and literary elements. Somewhat genre-defying. Reviewers have said it’s ‘an astonishing book’; ‘my book of the year, if not the decade’; ‘An important and brave book that forces you to reassess family and society in equal measure’ and ‘A fabulous story, hauntingly magical, with an almost hypnotic quality.’
My training as a literary critic as a student at Oxford shaped me and inspired me. Over the years, I kept coming back to texts I had discovered while I was there. The pieces that lifted me, the verses that helped me make sense of the world and its pain. The lines that gave me solace and comfort through periods of intense difficulty in my own personal life.
All these influences began to percolate together somehow. The life of a psychopath. The workings of the mind. The sometime darkness – and the ephemerality – of humanity. The ability of literature to light up the world, illuminate understanding, and provide succour. All these threads were coming together and I knew I needed to write a story to share with others what I was feeling. And I needed closure, catharsis.
And with that, the idea for SEAS OF SNOW was born.
Written with the duality of two protagonists, an evil man and an innocent little girl, the story is set in a sleepy village in 1950s Tyneside, North East England. The book dances through time, backwards and forwards between the literary reveries and physical abuses of the young girl, Gracie; and the old woman of today, frail and isolated in a nursing home. Billy Harper, Gracie’s childhood friend, is the only solid presence in her life, and seemingly the only constant. Diaries and poetry books bind the story and the characters. It is a story of lost innocence, betrayal and broken trust. It is a story of consequences.
Certain objects act as a touchstone between the memories of Gracie’s childhood life and the stark realities of the old woman’s existence. A crucifix, a locket, a perfume bottle, a piece of embroidery, a curl of hair and the cinnamon scent of books weave the times and places of the story together.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s dragons and princesses prose poem becomes a talisman for Gracie, tying in with her childhood games with Billy. And as she discovers his poetry, her fascination for the fact he wrote his own epitaph inspires her to write her own. Suddenly life is beginning to take on a new sense of meaning and understanding. But it is her uncle Joe who carries the momentum of the story. He intrudes on her while she takes a bath—a tableau that gradually unfolds through intermittent, evolving scenes as the book progresses. The scent of lemons in the air from the bubble bath reprises the first sensory impact Gracie had on Joe – as he locks the door and refuses to leave.
SEAS OF SNOW is also a love letter to literature. Thematic influences include the paralysis and inability to act of Hamlet. How a person’s reluctance to face up to truth and do what is right can wreak such havoc and destruction. Literary influences include Nabokov’s Lolita. I have always been mesmerised by the understatement of the writing in this novel—how despite the apparent salaciousness of the first chapters, what emerges as the book unfolds is how the writer leaves so much up to the imagination of the reader. SEAS OF SNOW does something similar. There is a subtlety in some of the most brutal scenes. The reader pieces together the full horror of what is unfolding; there is a deliberate delicacy in the writing.