Brixton author Tamsin Grey first thought of becoming a writer when she was just seven, but buried the idea in her 20s and 30s considering it, ‘deeply embarrassing and big-headed’ to think she might be able to write something other people would want to read.
It was only in her 40s, with an established civil service career as a speech-writer, that she took the risk of going for it. And it was possibly yoga that gave her the courage to try. (For a while she taught a regular yoga class at Brockwell Lido.) “The yoga philosophy of dharma – or life’s purpose – set me on the journey of writing my first book,” says Tamsin. “I became obsessed with the fact I needed to do it before I died or I would regret it on my deathbed.”
That book – She’s Not There – was published to critical aclaim by Harper Collins in April. Ian McEwan describes it as ‘a debut with a sure touch’; Lisa Jewell calls it “mesmerisingly good’.
It’s a deeply moving page-turner told from the point of view of nine-year-old Jonah, who wakes up one Monday morning to find his mum has disappeared. Over the course of a week he and his younger brother try to puzzle out what has happened to her – and whether or not she is going to come back – while at the same time keeping up the pretence to neighbours, teachers and friends, that nothing has happened and all is well.
We, the readers, want to know what has led to the boys’ precarious situation – and what will become of them. The stakes are high as the brothers fear being taken into care.
Set in Tamsin’s own neighbourhood on the Loughborough Junction side of Brixton, the boys (who are the same ages her own sons were when she started writing the novel) live in a ‘slightly messier version’ of her own house. She drew on her sons’ banter and experiences at school, and on recognisable local characters, like ‘Raggedy Man’, a homeless man that frequents her street.
“They were springboards for my imagination and a lot of creative licence,” she explains. “I started with the here and now and then brought in other bits of south London like Clapham and Crystal Palace and mashed them up together.”
Tamsin’s heart is definitely in the grittier parts of south London.
“The things I relish about my area are its cultural and economic diversity. It would be better if the huge gap between rich and poor didn’t exist, but given that we are in the world we are in, mixed neighbourhoods are better than ghettos enabling the rich to be ignorant of the poverty.”
But she is all too aware that south London is changing and not everyone is benefiting.
“My fear is that even here will become one of those bubbles of privilege and that people who have lived here for years and years and have contributed to the richness of the community end up getting pushed out.”
In the book, the community appears to be failing the young brothers as they teeter on the brink of loss. This is quite different, Tamsin hopes, to the strong community she knows locally. “It’s the kind of place where my kids are safe to go and play in the park and you can knock on a neighbour’s door if you forget your keys,” she says.
There is a spate of Brixton-set books out this year: The Lido by Libby Page and due soon Hold by Michael Donker. Tamsin Grey’s beautiful, funny and unsettling She’s Not There is a must-read, interweaving Jonah’s memories and dreams with nonsense rhymes his mother read to him as he tries to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that explain her disappearance.
Buy She’s Not There online here and contribute to your local bookshop.