With remarkable dramatic force, Mice plunges readers into one of the hot-button issues of our day: bullying and its complex, far-reaching psychological consequences.
After she is nearly killed by three friends-turned-tormentors, Shelley and her mother escape to the idyllic Honeysuckle Cottage in the English countryside. There, Shelley receives private instruction and begins to heal from the bullying she's suffered and the lingering pain of her parents' divorce. Just as they settle into a pleasant routine of gardening, listening to classical music, and enjoying lovely dinners, their sense of safety is shattered when someone violently invades their home on the eve of Shelley's sixteenth birthday. Still shaken by the trauma she suffered at school, she is paralyzed with fear. But when the thief walks off with her birthday present from her mother, Shelley snaps. What happens next sets in motion a series of events that will change both Shelley and her mother from the "mice" they've let themselves become into far different people, capable of thinking and doing things they could scarcely have imagined just weeks before.
What makes the novel more than a white-knuckle psychological thrillerthough it is surely thatis Gordon Reece's extraordinary insight into the "victim" personality that Shelley shares with her mother. As the narrator of the novel, Shelley brings an acute self-awareness and emotional honesty to her experience. She observes herself passively accepting the trauma inflicted on her and even notes the numbed matter-of-factness with which she records the increasingly violent attacks on her. Without self-pity, she openly acknowledges that she is a "mouse"instead of fighting back she prefers to "suffer in silence, to stay very still and hope not to be seen, to scurry along the skirting board searching for a safe place to hide" [p. 25]. She explores the emotional origins of the victim identity she has embraced, partly blaming her mother, who lets herself be bullied by her philandering, narcissistic husband and her boorish boss. And when Shelley begins to act on her rage herself, she is equally self-aware and unflinchingly honest about the less than noble feelings she's harboring.
Indeed, in a remarkable passage that occurs while Shelly is tied up during the burglary, she sneers at the works of great literature on her shelves, asserting that art merely covers up the true savagery of human nature and allows us to believe we're a great deal loftier than we really are. The novel itself cannot be accused of similar glossing over of the darker side of the human potential for violence that even the meekest among us surely possess. Mice is thus not only a searing portrait of two women pushed to the edge by the bullying they've suffered but also an unflinching look at our basest instincts.
Written with compelling forward momentum and lacerating emotional insight, Mice is filled with twists, turns and shocking surprises, even as it holds a mirror up to what we are most reluctant to acknowledge about ourselves.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Gordon Reece studied English literature at Keble College, Oxford, before emigrating to Spain and then Australia, where he has lived since 2005. He has written and illustrated fourteen children's books and graphic novels. Mice is his American debut and first novel.
Q. Bullying is a significant and growing problem in the United States. What is the situation like in the other countries where you've lived?
I think bullying is a growing and significant problem in many, many countries. When I researched girl-on-girl bullying, all the cases I looked at were from the UK, but when I moved to Spain I saw the same thing there. I remember seeing harrowing mobile phone footage on the news of some teenage girls beating up another girl while their friends egged them on with shouts of Mátala! Mátala! (kill her!). And here in Australia we've just had a case, also captured on a mobile phone, where an overweight schoolboy being goaded and punched by another boy suddenly snaps, picks him up, and slams him down hard onto the concreteyou could say it's the story of Mice played out in a ten-second video clip. I haven't yet visited a reading group here without meeting someone who's been bullied themselves or someone whose child has been bullied. So the United States is definitely not alone in this.
Q. What drew you to write about this subject?
Some experiences I had when I was a trainee lawyer got me thinking about bullying in the workplace and the potential for explosive violence in individuals subjected to regular humiliation. Mice was originally to be about a young married couple who are both victims of bullying in the workplacethe husband in his law firm, the wife in the dental clinic where she's a nurse. Girl-on-girl bullying was much in the news at that time, however, and I eventually decided to substitute the couple for a mother and daughter. I also felt the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship might be more interesting to explore. I know Shelley's bullying has aroused a lot of comment because bullying is such a worrying and pressing problem today, but my main motive in writing the bullying scenes was to create the necessary psychological trauma in Shelley so that her extreme reaction when the burglar breaks into the house would be believable.
Q. Shelley thinks to herself: "After everything I've lived through, surely I'll be able to write something truly great? After all, how many writers actually know what it's like to kill somebody?" [p. 231]. You describe the act of murder pretty vividly. How did you come by that knowledge? Could you talk about the relationship between real experience and imaginative writing more generally?
It wasn't first-hand experience, I promise! I've got an oval rose bed in my garden but there are no bodies buried in it. I'm actually pretty squeamish and go faint at the sight of blood, so I don't think I'd make much of a murderer. I know they say "write what you know," but that philosophy has never really appealed to me very much. I'm bored by what I know, there's no imaginative challenge in what I know. I like to imagine what I don't know. From childhood I always wrote stories that were far removed from my own everyday experience (I remember a long saga when I was eight about the survivor of a plane crash struggling to survive in the South Pole) and still today it's that imaginative leap into other people's lives, other historical times, other realities that makes writing such an exciting and liberating occupation. If I do make use of real experience, then it's so distorted in the writing process's hall of mirrors that it's completely unrecognizable. And that's how I think it should be.
Q. Mice is full of surprises. How did you go about plotting the major turns in the novel? Did any of these turns surprise you when writing?
I had a general planI'm not the kind of writer who can sit down and start writing without having a fairly clear idea of where I want the story to gobut I left myself enough freedom so that the precise details of the unfolding story would be fresh to me as I wrote them. Sometimes these detailslike a certain mobile phone going off at an inconvenient momentwould come as a pleasant surprise. Those are the best moments in writing, when a little twist presents itself out of the blue and you're confident that it's going to work. Even though there was a rough plan, I still took wrong turns. I can remember writing a long scene in which Shelley and Elizabeth visit a local farm shopI have no idea now why I would have included that scene!
Q. Shelley and her mother are revitalized by the murders they commit, which feels emotionally right but morally wrong. How do you feel about this issue?
I think that description says it allemotionally right but morally wrong. My sympathies were strongly with Shelley and Elizabeth when I was writing Mice and for me there couldn't have been any other ending than the one we have. At the same time, however, we know that lines are being crossed, rules broken, values we hold dear twisted out of shape, so that we can't feel entirely comfortable with what's happened. I think after finishing the book many will feel a lingering sense of unease about what they've condoned in its pages. While I was writing the novel I sent each finished third or so to my agent, and I remember her saying to me when she'd read the ending, 'I'm not sure I know these people anymore. And that's precisely the point. The problem with violenceeven when it's justifiedis that it inevitably corrupts those who use it and erodes the moral high ground they once had.
Q. You've written and illustrated fourteen children's books. What are the challenges moving from this genre to adult fiction? Did your previous books help prepare you for Mice?
It was a challenge changing genres, I must say. I couldn't listen to the radio or audio books when I was writing (as I can when I'm illustrating), so the working day felt harder and seemed much longer. I thought I'd be able to write a thousand words a day and discovered that I was doing well if I could manage a hundred! And of course in a work with illustrations I can draw things which are difficult to describe, but with a novel you have to do everything with words. Strange as it may sound, I think the children's picture books I've written were a preparation for writing Mice in many ways. My first children's books were very influenced by Aesop's fables and often dealt with moral dilemmas. Ironically, stories like that can involve some complex moral philosophy and are much harder to write than they lookone wrong sentence, one wrong word even, can change the message and a story which was supposed to encourage independence, for example, might end up seeming to promote selfishness. One book I wrote was called The Little Donkey, and it was about a family of Corsican peasants who are unspeakably cruel to their donkeythey beat it and overwork it and starve it so that it's just skin and bones. When nothing is heard from this family for several days the police chief goes to their mountain cabin to investigate, but they've disappeared. All he finds are some suspicious bloodstains, and the little donkeywhich has, inexplicably, grown very fat. The story was never publishedit probably would have sent the kids to bed completely traumatized!but maybe it was an exaggerated first sketch of some of the issues that interested me in Mice. Its epigraph was "fear the weak" which would have worked well for Mice in some ways too.
Q. You've mentioned Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers as one of your favorite novels. In what ways has McEwan been an influence on your work?
McEwan was the first writer I actually discovered for myself. I saw his collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, in a local bookshop and bought it, and was hooked immediately. There was a startling honesty about his writing, a lack of squeamishness, an unpretentiousness, and a sense of danger that was a revelation to me as a teenagerhe wasn't afraid to explore the darkest corners of the human psyche and confront taboos. His first two novelsThe Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangerswill always be in my top ten books. I never have a copy of them in the house because I'm always lending them out as must reads! I was already writing dark stories at school, but discovering McEwan helped validate those early efforts and convinced me that, ironically, it's the dark corners that can shed the most light on the human condition.
Q. What other writers have been particularly important for you?
Thomas Hardy was important in my teens and twenties; I think Tess of the d'Urbervilles is the most powerful feminist novel written to date. I was obsessed by W. H. Auden at university and for many years afterward, and the sharp-eyed will see several quotes or paraphrases of Auden in the text of Mice. I think Auden really showed the philosophical potential of poetryno other writer I know makes you think so much about so many things. Zola's Thérèse Raquin was another early favoriteit's a wonderfully macabre melodrama, dark, compelling, and extraordinarily vividthe mortuary scenes will stay with you forever! I want to write my own love triangle novel one day, but Thérèse Raquin will take some beating. And Graham Greene has been an important influence too, not so much in terms of his style or subject matter but in his conviction that an author can write well, i.e., deal with profound and complex material, but still be entertaining, still take the reader on a thrilling ride.
Q. The novel feels in many ways cinematic. What would you like to see if this was adapted for the screen?
I think we all write for cinema to a certain extent these daysI might easily stop and change something I've written if I think it would be difficult to film. As for the movie version of Mice, I'd love to see what two great actresses could do with the roles of Shelley and Elizabeth. People often say there aren't enough challenging roles for women in cinemaespecially for women over forty; well, Mice is a movie about two women, one in her teens and one in her late forties, and one or the other would be on the screen the whole time. More than that, the roles are truly demandingthere's hardly a human emotion they wouldn't have to portray between the two of them. I'd also love to see the extra touches, the extrapolations, that a good director could bring to the material. You see this in the best adaptations of novelsDeliverance, Straw Dogs, The Shining, Revolutionary Road, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestthe director understands the story and the characters so well that they can actually bring something new to it, take what the writer has done and develop aspects of it further. It's these additions I'd be most interested to see, rather than just a slavish adaptation of the book.
Q. What's next for you?
I'm contracted to write another novel for Allen and Unwin and I'm about halfway through the first draft. It's another thriller with a female protagonist and the working title is The Slide. After that, I'd like to take a break from novels and write some shorter fictionnovellas and short stories. My problem is that I've got about twenty-five story ideas in my notebook that I want to explore, but there's not enough time to write them all as novels. I did a scriptwriting course a few years ago and enjoyed that a lot, so I might try to write some of them as movie scripts. Others could make good graphic novels, but I'd have to let go of the illustration side of things and try to find an illustrator I could collaborate with. On a more personal note, I'm moving back to live in the UK after twelve years awayso that's an exciting prospect, but also a little daunting. After living in a sleepy valley in the Australian bush for the last six years it's going to be a bit of a culture shock!
- Mice is very much about Shelley and her mother, Elizabeth, and their particular experiences. But it is also about the larger issue of bullying and how it affects peoplean issue much in the news these days. In what ways is a novel able to explore the problem more deeply than would a straightforward journalistic treatment? What is Mice as a whole saying about the bully/victim dynamic?
- Why doesn't the school punish Shelley's attackers?
- Shelley likes to imagine the badge that would signify the fellowship of the mice: "a mouse in a trap with a broken neck, and our motto 'Nati ad aram' in a curling scrollborn with the victim gene. Was that Mum's real legacy to me?" [p. 45]. In what ways has Shelley's mother shown her how to be a mouse? What causes people like Shelley to become victims?
- While tied up during the robbery, Shelley looks at the books on the shelf and thinks to herself: "It was all lies. It was all one gigantic fraud. They pretended to be about lifereal lifebut they weren't connected with real life at all… And all this culture, all this art, was simply a trick. It allowed us to pretend that human beings were noble, intelligent creatures who'd left their animal past behind them long ago and had evolved into something finer, something purer" [p. 86-87]. Is Shelley right, or partly right, about art and culture covering up the true savagery of human nature? In what ways does Mice succeed in telling a more truthful story about who we really are?
- What is it that drives Shelley to chase the thief out the back door and stab him in the back repeatedly? What role does the bullying she's suffered and her resentment toward her father play in her actions?
- When Shelley looks in the mirror after killing Paul Hannigan, she finds a discordant expression on her face and realizes she's feeling "exhilaration" [p. 124]. Why would she have such a feelingand admit to itat this moment? In what ways is Shelley an extraordinarily honest and self-aware narrator?
- How are Shelley and her mother changed by killing Paul Hannigan? How are they changed by the blackmailer's death?
- Shelley repeatedly references Macbeth throughout the novel. In what ways does Shakespeare's play provide meaningful parallels to Mice?
- Shelley realizes: "We think we control the course our life takes, we think we're the captain of the vessel with our hand on the wheel, but in fact it's luck (or fate or destiny or God or whatever we choose to call it) that's really in control" [p. 314]. Does it seem that fate has determined the course of events in Shelley's life? Is it a "miracle" that her mother misses shooting the blackmailer at point-blank range?
- Shelley and her mother escape to the isolated and idyllic Honeysuckle Cottage after Shelley has been brutalized by school bullies. But violence follows them to the countryside. What is the novel saying about our desire for safety? How else might Shelley and her mother have responded to the bullying?
- Near the end of the novel, after they've gotten away with a second murder, Shelley says, "I don't feel guilty about what we've done, Mum. I'm glad they're both dead… Everything we've done, everythingit's all been in self-defense" [p. 325]. Is she right to feel no guilt? How are we finally to judge Shelley and her mother?