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‘It is basically politicising a lack of sex life’

Peter Gruner talks to novelist Lisa Jewell, whose latest thriller, set in Hampstead, delves into the murky world of incels

11 February, 2021 — By Peter Gruner

Hampstead High Street at dawn. Photo: Marc Barrot/flickr

FORGET so-called “happy Hampstead”. If Covid isn’t bad enough, a dark new novel depicts a group of locals angry and fearful following the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl.

Swiss Cottage best-selling author Lisa Jewell delves deeply into the famous area, and the emotional state of her flawed characters, for her latest intense and engaging thriller, Invisible Girl.

And, says Lisa, the book is currently being considered for a major six-part TV series.

The main suspect is Owen, a loner and former college lecturer, who visits online websites for “involuntary celibates” who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one.

Meanwhile, near neighbour Saffyre Maddox, 17, has been missing for two weeks at a time when there have been a number of attacks on women in the area. She’s a “regular boffin”, who is in the sixth form of a school in Chalk Farm where she’s studying maths and sciences.

The police are involved in a search for Saffyre, which takes place amid the grand avenues, fine houses and big cars close to the Heath. The backdrop includes Hampstead Village, Pond Street, Finchley Road and Kentish Town police station.

Lisa Jewell. Photo: Andrew Whitton

Saffyre is the “Invisible Girl” who by day is the perfect pupil but at night bizarrely likes to hide in garden sheds and watch people. She has big issues. Her mum is dead, her dad doesn’t want to know her, she self harms and lives on the eighth floor of a tower block with her uncle Aaron.

She was also being treated for depression as a result of being sexually abused by a boy when she was 10.

Saffyre is last seen walking up to Hampstead Village, which she visits regularly to peer into shop windows at things she can’t afford and doesn’t really need. Lisa writes: “Designer tile shops, designer paint shops, a shop selling one brand of cooking pan in about 20 different colours.” Saffyre admits to not quite understanding Hampstead, but liking it.

Back to Owen, 33, who is suspected of her kidnap or worse and who walks out of his college job after alleged inappropriate behaviour towards female students. He lives with an aunt who he doesn’t get on with.

He also has a tendency towards the use of politically incorrect or inappropriate phrases like “man up” and “sexy” while referring to students as “insane” or “mental”.

Then there’s an “excessive blasphemy” issue. When he is accused of making fun of students with food intolerances, including vegans, he closes his eyes and mutters, “For God’s sake.”

He is said to favour teaching boys, and belittles girls or ignores them.

Owen also lacks confidence to such an extent that he has never had sex or indeed a sexual partner.

But wait. There’s another potential candidate for crime nearby. He’s the “creepy” child psychologist Dr Roan Fours, who shares a temporary flat close to the Freud Museum with his put-upon wife Cate and son and daughter while their plush house in Kilburn is being refurbished.

Dr Fours has until recently been treating Saffyre and she has developed a thing about him. According to Cate, the doctor has no problem empathising with young patients with personality disorders, but not his own children.

Oh, yes, we learn later that he’s having an affair with a female colleague.

Detective Inspector Currie is the investigating officer from Kentish Town police station who is described as having an “unnerving smile that is half Clinique consultant and half twisted primary school teacher”.

Lisa explained her fascination with incels – the “involuntary celibates”.

“It is basically politicising a lack of sex life. Or blaming society because they may have been unlucky in love.”

Why did she choose Hampstead for the book? “Obviously there’s a rich literary tradition in the area although these days people don’t tend to set books in Hampstead so often. I have lived in Hampstead briefly, before we moved across Finchley Road to Swiss Cottage. I remember we had difficult times and it wasn’t all that comfortable. But it inspired my writing.”

Lisa, married and a mother of two, is a former fashion worker who left school without A-levels and didn’t go to university. She has written 19 books. Her tip to would-be novelists is: remember that only a small percentage can make a living out of writing.

“Learn to trust your instincts. Don’t try and be someone you’re not. And as far as possible bring your work back to who you really are. In other words, be true to yourself.”

Invisible Girl. By Lisa Jewell, Arrow Books, £8.99.

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