- 06 Mar 18
London-Irish writer Jess Kidd talks reviving crime fiction with magic realism, her joy at having never-ending work-loads, and the inspiration behind her beautifully unsettling new novel, The Hoarder.
It’s a bleary-eyed, red-faced Hot Press interviewer who arrives at a Brook’s Hotel in Dublin to meet Jess Kidd, the London-based author who’s on a whistle-top book tour to promote the release of her second novel The Hoarder. Having just been given the book a day-and-a-half earlier by the frankly sadistic Hot Press commissioning crew, it was an all-hands-on-deck sort of 48 hours in which to absorb all 346 pages of Kidd’s genre-bending sophomore release. I’ve only just finished the thing before I’m running out to meet her.
A murder-mystery novel that veers beyond the physical realms, The Hoarder tells the tale of Maud Brennan, an underpaid careworker who tries to forge a connection with her volatile, perpetually-hoarding older patient, Mr. Flood. However, Maud gets caught up trying to expose the supernatural – and potentially criminal – secrets contained in a house where the words “spring cleaning” haven’t been mentioned since long before Ireland stopped putting in a serious challenge at the Eurovision.
“I’m so sorry to subject you to two days’ worth of clutter!” Jess laughs, as I breathlessly try to explain my dishevelled appearance.
No apologies needed, of course. If there’s one thing that Jess Kidd has mastered with this novel, it’s the ability to combine immersive, imaginative first person narration with razorsharp dialogue and a truly unique twist on the horror-mystery genre. If anything, I might ask her to apologise for how much my mind turned over the story long after I’d closed the book and tried to go to sleep…
Then again, sleepless nights have been Jess’ bread and butter over the years. Having started writing seriously during the free time she had between working various jobs and singlehandedly raising her daughter, the writer is most at home when she’s taking on several tasks/projects at the same time. This method, she says, has led her to be more “creatively free and better about taking risks”. But where did the creative spark for The Hoarder first originate?
“I had the idea of this relationship for a long time because I’ve worked as a careworker,” says Kidd. “And I don’t know whether it was because they gave me all the mad old bastards of the day! But I wanted to write about that relationship between a supportive person and the patient they’re trying to working with. I found in that experience that you have to be so careful, because it’s all built on trust. It’s a professional thing, but you also have to be emotionally invested.”
As Maud, her agoraphobic landlord Renata, and a band of sardonic saints try to unravel the mysteries surrounding Mr. Flood and a series of tragic events which occurred in his family’s past, the story goes beyond the surface and delves into the psyches of its characters, all of whom are attempting to come to terms with their own identity in the wake of a personal loss.
“I pretty much started this in the wake of my father’s death,” Jess admits. “So there was quite a lot in it, in terms of grief and death. I knew I wanted to write about the relationship between a careworker and a patient, but I also wanted to explore themes of bereavement. So in this book we have a character, Mr Flood, who kind of builds himself up into this cocoon of his own clutter and keeps himself away from the world.
“I really wanted to explore how people withdraw from the outside world, and how others can try to reach them. As well as that, when it comes to fiction, I like exploring these inter-generational friendships that can occur. I also think hoarding is just a fascinating thing to write about anyway. But when I discovered that there was a link between it and bereavement, I really wanted to explore that.”
When doing interviews for her previous work, 2016’s darkly comic Himself, Jess spoke about the limits of crime fiction. Her own work incorporates elements of magic realism into the genre, giving it an extra dimension.
“I think it all comes down to thinking about the reader,” she explains, “because as a reader, you don’t want to have a sense of how a story will end. You have to find that balance between something not being too formulaic, but also giving something for the reader to solve.
“I did my PHD on the idea of genre-splicing, so I thought that if you could add this realm of magic realism, you’d have so much more going on in the investigation. You can bring in all manner of craziness into it.”
No argument there. The Hoarder unapologetically leaves readers stumbling about in the dark for much of the story, as they try to work out whether what’s going on is the result of paranormal activity, criminal conspiracy, or good old fashioned overactive imagination…
“Magic realism can often act as an antidote to an empirical way of explaining things,” notes Jess. “This idea that you can nail down everything with reason. Because when you try to write about things that can’t be nailed down, like reactions to grief and bereavement, it almost makes sense to go beyond the real world.”
In a story where no one is exactly who they appear to be on the surface, characterisation becomes a crucial part of solving the novel’s mysteries. A shared Irish heritage helps break down the barriers between the incorrigible Mr. Flood and Maud, who are both outsiders in a London suburb.
“I often hear the characters’ dialogue first,” says Jess. “I hear how they react to each other. So with the Irish identity thing, the object was that they have this thing in common, which would come through in the way they communicate, and that could eventually help them break down the walls between them. Both characters have incredible storytelling qualities, which allow them to forge this uneasy friendship and which helps Maud as she tries to get to the bottom of the mysteries.”
Right from the first chapter, where Mr. Flood tells a chilling, seemingly inexplicable tale about childhood trauma, Jess sets up the components for a fever dream of a story, where claustrophobia, paranoia and clutter feel like sentient characters. It works so well on the page that we only recommend getting torn into the book itself before the TV series – which has been commissioned, Jess confirms – gets rolled out.
The Hoarder is out now, published by Canongate.