Novelist Lesley Glaister was born in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England in 1956.
She grew up in Suffolk, moving to Sheffield with her first husband, where she took a degree with the Open University. She was 'discovered' by the novelist Hilary Mantel when she attended a course given by the Arvon Foundation in 1989. Mantel was so impressed by her writing that she recommended her to a literary agent.
Lesley Glaister's first novel, Honour Thy Father (1990), won both a Somerset Maugham Award and a Betty Trask Award. Her other novels include Trick or Treat (1991), Limestone and Clay (1993), for which she was awarded the Yorkshire Post Book Award (Yorkshire Author of the Year), Partial Eclipse (1994) and The Private Parts of Women (1996), Now You See Me (2001), the story of the unlikely relationship between Lamb, a former patient in a psychiatric ward, and Doggo, a fugitive on the run from the police, As Far as You Can Go (2004), a psychological drama, in which a young couple, Graham and Cassie, travel to a remote part of Australia to take up a caretaking job, only to be drawn into the dark secrets of their mysterious employers. Her latest novel is Little Egypt (2014).
Lesley Glaister lives with her husband between Edinburgh and Orkney. She has three sons and teaches Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Connie, the reclusive painter heroine of Lesley Glaister’s novel Sheer Blue Bliss (1999), lost her family as a young girl during the war, and muses, ‘There are those who have suffered, and those who haven’t, and that is the greatest difference between people’.
A now-celebrated artist, she returns from a London exhibition to find herself held hostage by Tony, a psychotic ex-prisoner obsessed with her late husband’s ‘Phytosophical Principles’ – an eccentric theory of human and plant lives, whose elixirs promise ‘Seven Steps to Bliss’. A certain black humour is almost always at play in Glaister’s psychological dramas and, typically, this is no simple story of a terrorized victim. As the increasingly creepy plot unfolds, we find out about the man’s own past traumas, almost developing sympathy for him, before a deadly twist during the tense conclusion puts all the characters’ actions and motives in an ambiguous light. Glaister is a novelist popular with readers (being heavily borrowed from public libraries), as well as critics and fellow writers. Her admirers include Ruth Rendell and Hilary Mantel, who has praised her work as ‘witty, macabre and beautifully constructed’, while her depictions of damaged or marginal characters may also owe something to Beryl Bainbridge. A number of her books have Yorkshire settings; Now You See Me (2001), for instance, takes place around the city of Sheffield, where she lived for many years.
Secrets and lies, revelations emerging out of the past, the hidden darkness at the heart of personal relationships; these all characterize Glaister’s novels. Often employing interior monologues, they are adept at conjuring up atmospheres of menace, emotional claustrophobia, guilt, and suspicion, while obsessions, nightmares, and desire haunt her characters. Her books explore viewpoints. These are mainly but not exclusively female, and her male characters tend to be either feckless or dangerous. In the latest novel, As Far As You Can Go (2004), Glaister has become highly adept – perhaps too manipulative - in planting clues for the reader as to what is ‘really going on’, as Cassie and her artist boyfriend contend with the evasions of their mysterious employer. But by revealing her characters’ insecurities, suspicions and fears, Glaister plays upon the reader’s own.
Trick or Treat (1991) sets the pattern with its episodes of farce and horror, the effects of long-held resentments, and secrets, literally buried since the war, being unearthed – with deadly consequences. The title immediately comes into play in an ambiguous opening scene: is it innocent, fun, or sinister, when a group of children call at an elderly couple’s door at Hallowe'en, frightening them and their pets? Kropotkin is a spaniel and Mao a bald cat, names that tell us that the devoted Arthur and Olive are veteran communists, whose wartime activities (his as a Conscientious Objector, hers during an affair with her neighbour’s husband) eventually come back to haunt them. Relationships between the generations are at the heart of the book. Olive and Arthur befriend ‘Wolfie’, a lonely ‘little lad’ in need of grandparents, and are themselves sustained, despite increasing disability, by memories: how beautiful she once was, and the child she had who died. Olive’s life-long rival, in politics and love, has been her neighbour Nell; she obsesses over cleaning and has discussions with her dead husband’s photograph. The over-controlling relationship she has with her mentally disturbed son Rodney, leads to a horribly violent episode between them, and she thinks ‘the important thing is to save the carpet’. At a communal Bonfire Night Party, the conflict between drunken Olive and strait-laced Nell re-ignites, and the revelation of Olive’s wartime affair with her husband leads to an even more explosive discovery at the local allotments.
Easy Peasy (1997) has been rightly praised for brilliantly depicting the world of children, their emotional bewilderment and casual cruelty. It is a tale of guilt and possible redemption, told by Zelda, alternating between childhood memories of her sadism towards a deaf and disabled boy, and the present, where Zelda fears her lesbian lover Foxy is about to end their relationship. Nightmare-ridden Zelda has to deal with the aftermath of her father’s suicide, piecing together his fragmentary wartime diary, and trying to make sense of his horrific experiences in a Japanese prison camp. In caring for the boy’s mother and in meeting him again as an adult, Zelda learns to accept uncomfortable truths about her father and herself. Similarly, the difficulty – and the necessity - of truth between people forms the underlying subject of Now You See Me (2001). This is again mainly told through the consciousness of an unhappy young woman beset by the past. Loner ‘Lamb’ thinks ‘it’s a gift, trust, but whether a good or a bad gift I can’t decide’. After leaving a psychiatric hospital and living clandestinely in the basement of elderly Mr. Dickens, she encounters her soul mate in ‘Doggo’: ‘a little warmth started, a spark struck between stones’. Doggo, she gradually realizes, is himself a criminal on the run with dark secrets of his own, and trust becomes the issue between them, especially when the attractive niece of her employer turns up. Lamb’s confused emotional attachments bring her to painful knowledge about herself and others, but happiness is short-lived.
Glaister’s novel, As Far As You Can Go (2004) escapes from dark Yorkshire settings to the sunshine and open spaces of Western Australia, but not from the familiar atmosphere of menace, doubts, sexual tension and underlying violence. The moral ambiguities of voyeurism provide its subject. Discontented Cassie responds to a job advert for a housekeeper and persuades her boyfriend, feckless painter Graham, into joining her; she wants to test their relationship and her desire to settle down and have a child. Their enigmatic employer Larry (described as small … [with a] grey, pointy beard' – you just know that he’s a villain) is by turns avuncular, confiding, flirtatious and evasive. Cassie begins to suspect that they are being observed, then manipulated, and later drugged. Graham is persuaded to paint Larry’s reclusive wife Mara, and blackmailed when he has sex with her. As in Sheer Blue Bliss, trauma inspires a previously redundant artist to start painting again. While the plot may be somewhat predictable, it has plenty of tension and some beautifully written descriptions, particularly when Cassie and Graham attempt to escape at night and face the searing heat of the outback next day. The wildlife is alternately appealing and menacing, as they encounter kangaroos, a snake, and cockatoo with a ‘stiff white quiff like a frosted Elvis’. When Larry catches up with them, Cassie’s nightmare really begins, and the conclusion, when safely back in England, involves a typically macabre Glaister twist.
Dr Jules Smith, 2004