Published by Hutchinson, 2013, and Windmill, 2014,
‘A beautiful story of family and loss. Haunting and compelling’ – Lisa Jewell
‘Heart-rending’ – Anne Berry, author of The Adoption
‘A quickly engaging domestic mystery…gently ingenious,’ – Lesley McDowell, the Sunday Herald
‘This moving tale of life-long searches and accountability will pull at the heart strings’ – Lulu Trask, the Lady Magazine
‘A remarkable read…Family Likeness probes into the issue of colour and subtle racism…hard to put down’
– Beata Kasale, the Voice, Botswana
Also available as an Audio Book, Isis Publishing, and large print, F A Thorpe
The stories behind the book
For a long time I wanted to write a novel about a babysitter. As a teenager I worked as a babysitter for years and I never felt much burdened by the responsibility of looking after someone else’s child. I was quite happy to be left alone with a baby just a few months old. I only rarely checked on a child once they were asleep; I had none of the worries an actual parent might have.
But I was always aware of what an odd role it was. I was in someone’s home; I had access to intimate things. I was told – or discovered – secrets.
And I was nosy. I studied photographs, riffled bookshelves, read opened post that was left lying around. Sometimes I was just a little amazed that I was all alone in a house, in charge of a child. Why was this family trusting me?
A babysitter has a unique position, an insider privy to family drama, but also an outsider. I knew my character would need an agenda but I didn’t yet know what that would be. So I had the idea in the back of my head for years. Then other ideas came along as well:
Dido Elizabeth Belle
Around six years ago I was wandering around Kenwood on Hampstead Heath with my then seven-year-old daughter. It was a rainy day and we went into the house and she ran around from room to room. Then suddenly she stopped in front of a painting.
The painting showed two cousins, the woman in the background is Dido Elizabeth Belle, described by some as Britain’s ‘first black aristocrat’. In the 1790s she’d lived at Kenwood, with her cousin Elizabeth (shown in the foreground).
Dido was born around 1761, the daughter of an African woman called Maria Belle and a British navy captain called John Lindsay. A few years later Dido was sent to live with her father’s uncle, The Earl of Mansfield.
At the time I saw the painting – which was then on loan to Kenwood and which normally resides at Scone Palace in Perth – I could find virtually nothing about Dido’s life. I wondered how she’d lived, what her status had been – not quite family, not quite servant.
By the time I started thinking about Dido again, there was much more available to read. I contacted two people whose work I found on the Internet, Gene Adams who had written a paper on Dido, and Sarah Minney, a genealogist and record agent who was researching Dido’s life. Sarah kindly sent me a copy of Dido’s intriguing baptism certificate:
Louis, the American GI
Another idea came from a character in The Ghost of Lily Painter, a few people asked what had happened to him, and I wondered that too. This was Louis, a black American who arrives in the UK in the early 1940s.
He has a passionate love affair with a white English woman, she becomes pregnant, and she never sees him again.
I’d already started to try and find out more about GIs who were over here in World War Two and I was shocked that I couldn’t discover much about any of the black troops. But I did read some books about what happened to babies born to GI fathers.
This led me to a group called War Babes, founded in 1984, and TRACE founded in 1986. War Babes were the British-born children of American GI soldiers during World War Two. Now adults, they wanted to know who their missing fathers were, to build up a picture of their roots, to discover where they came from and perhaps meet a family they had never known. It made me think about family and belonging in a new way: what would it be like not to know where you came from? And that in turn led me to two new organisations dedicated to helping people find relatives – GI Trace and GI & Family International Search.
These new groups make full use of social media. So I got in touch, asking whether what I had written so far rang true, and had an immediate and enthusiastic response. I’m indebted to all of those who stayed in contact and helped me along the way.
Many children born in the UK to GI fathers grew up at children’s homes like Barnardo’s. I wrote to their archives asking if I could have access to documents that might illuminate life in the 1950s, and the archive manager invited me to Barkingside. This was a strange visit for me, because by then I knew my other central character quite well and I felt as if it was her – not me – that was coming back to a place she’d known as a child.
The launch at Waterstone’s, Hampstead, on July 4th
Cake made by Kate at www.patacakepatacake.com
Read about ‘GI babies’ and the background to the book in Discover Your History Magazine, April 2014
Talks and events, 2014
July 5th, Highgate Library mini-festival, 12-4pm, ‘Dido Elizabeth Belle and the story behind Family Likeness’, time to be confirmed
April 16th, 1-3pm, Word for Word writing workshop (using artifacts), Crouch End Library, London
April 28th, 7.45pm, GI ‘war babies’, Stanford-le-Hope Ladies’ Club, Essex
May 31st Finchley Literary Festival, Avenue House, Finchley
‘An absorbing, beautifully-written and very topical novel’ – Amanda Craig, author of Hearts and Minds
‘Davies is an unfussy and intelligent storyteller with a gift for translating the complexities of ordinary lives into novelistic form’ – Emma Hagestadt, the Independent
‘The passages describing young Muriel’s coming to terms with her abandonment are movingly done’ – David Evans, the Independent on Sunday
‘An engaging dual-narrative that runs the reader through a whole gamut of emotions, including suspicion, fear, pity, sadness and joy as the full story unfolds…it is one of those stories that will stay with the reader for some time after the book has finished’
– Louise Jones, the Bookbag
‘A mix of compelling family story, exquisite historical detail and layers of mystery, this is a very satisfying novel indeed. One of this summer’s must reads!’
– Helen Hunt, Fiction is Stranger than Fact
‘A story of prejudice, war, secrets and the search to belong’
– The Ham & High
‘Family Likeness is a fascinating story, and a moving exploration of issues of race, family and belonging’
– Writers’ Hub
‘Family secrets and lies haunt the book’
– Books Teens & Magazines
‘A suspenseful novel. Muriel’s story, infused with the sadness of growing up not knowing why her parents abandoned her, has a ripple effect throughout the lives of the other characters .. culminating is some remarkable and moving scenes’
– Camden New Journal
‘A thoughtful and involving look at the social consequences of race and illegitimacy and how one’s need for a place to belong never really goes away’
– Sarah Johnson, Historical Novels Review
‘A surprising and poignant novel of three very different women, of what it is to grow up motherless and different and how important it is – or not – to know where we come from. Cleverly and deftly woven together, the unfolding plot is gripping and fresh’
Further background on the novel/related articles
Family Likeness is a fascinating story, and a moving exploration of issues of race, family and belonging. – See more here.
An interview with Writers’ Hub
The anxieties around hiring teenage babysitters on Gransnet
An interview about Family Likeness with Wendy Wallace here
Is there a writing gene? Writers’ Forum
An article on writing the book in Hampstead Matters,