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Books: New thriller about 'motherhood & madness'

Informed by her time as a Fleet Street journalist, Sarah Vaughan’s acclaimed thrillers dig for the truth, unearthing both characters’ darkest secrets and page-turning plot twists. Her latest book, Little Disasters, addresses “motherhood and madness”, as she tells Alice Ryan

When Sarah Vaughan turned 40, she raised a glass and made a pledge: before her next birthday, she was going to write a novel. And get it published. “Looking back, I was so naive,” she laughs. “But I did what I said I would do. I think the fact I’d announced it in front of a whole group of friends helped – there was no wriggling out of it. . .”

Seven years on and Sarah, who lives in Cambridge, is now a bestselling novelist, famed for 2018 psychological thriller Anatomy of a Scandal. A worldwide hit which spent 10 weeks on the Sunday Times bestsellers’ list, it centres on a charismatic MP accused of committing a sexual crime in a House of Commons lift, a setting inspired by Sarah’s years as political correspondent for The Guardian. Part courtroom drama, part inside story of an outwardly perfect marriage, it’s a singularly compelling read and, written just on the cusp of the #MeToo movement, eerily prescient, too.

Sarah’s new book, Little Disasters, is equally unafraid to face uncomfortable truths. When an affluent mother-of-three arrives at A&E with an injured baby and a story that doesn’t quite add up, it’s down to the on-call paediatrician – who happens to be a close family friend – to decide what to do. What unfurls is a tale, says Sarah, “of friendship and judgment, motherhood and madness. Specifically, it’s about postnatal anxiety, maternal OCD and the way in which motherhood can push a woman to the edge.”

Little Disasters, Sarah Vaughan, Simon & Schuster (34078987)
Little Disasters, Sarah Vaughan, Simon & Schuster (34078987)

The book has won rave reviews: “Taut, clever, compelling and guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat” (Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train); “Domestic noir and psyche thriller, it’s brave and brilliant” (Fionnuala Kearney, author of The Book of Love); “Vaughan manages to hit that rare sweet spot between satisfying, literary writing and a plot that grips you by the throat” (Cass Green, author of The Killer Inside); “A novel that will change lives” (Bryony Gordon, Telegraph columnist).

The story was, Sarah explains, sparked by personal experience. Bedridden part-way through her second pregnancy by pelvic girdle syndrome – so severe, she’d collapsed in the street at 19 weeks and was left with crippling pain till her youngest was three – she and her husband had just left London for Cambridge, also leaving their support network and Sarah’s Guardian job behind them.

“A perfect storm of circumstances – being unable to walk during pregnancy and afterwards; moving 50 miles away from my home, sister, and support network; giving up the career that had validated me and given me an identity – meant I had postnatal anxiety,” she explains. “I experienced some intrusive thoughts that made it very easy to imagine what it would be like to have maternal OCD.”

Sarah Vaughan Author & Journalist - photo by Philip Mynott. (34078995)
Sarah Vaughan Author & Journalist - photo by Philip Mynott. (34078995)

Her fears were, adds Sarah, amplified by her 13 years on Fleet Street. “Because I’d covered cases of murders by paedophiles – most notably Sarah Payne and the Soham schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman – I constantly feared my daughter would be snatched from me as she scooted ahead of me. Sleep deprived and still breast-feeding, I also saw myself dropping my baby down the stairs. I never sought, or was given, medication, but I eventually had a course of 12 sessions of CBT.”

Her husband’s job as a hospital doctor, in the course of which, like all medical professionals, he has had to make safeguarding decisions, was another source of inspiration, along with a long-term fascination with “people, particularly women, whose professional judgement has a huge impact. They have the potential to wreak havoc. It’s that sense of responsibility”.

Little Disasters has been praised for its authenticity. As well as drawing on her real-world experiences, Sarah spent months doing rigorous research, interviewing paediatric registrars, an obstetrician, a perinatal psychiatrist and social workers and consulting a retired detective to get the policing issues accurate. “It’s the journalist in me: for Anatomy, I shadowed a barrister prosecuting a rape case,” she adds. “I want to get it right.”

Sarah studied English at Oxford before training with the Press Association and spending 11 years with The Guardian, variously as news, health and political reporter, under the byline Sarah Hall. It wasn’t until the arrival of her second baby that, taking voluntary redundancy, she decided to go freelance.

Writing fiction was, in many ways, a natural next step. Sarah’s debut novel, The Art of Baking Blind, hinged on an amateur baking competition and, along with second book The Farm at the Edge of the World, was altogether cosier than her more recent work. Baking Blind sold in nine countries and Farm became a huge hit in France, where Sarah’s still in demand for signings.

But when the time came to write book three, with her journalist’s nose for a good story and desire to shed light on dark truths, Sarah changed direction: “Truthfully, Anatomy of a Scandal was the book I’d always wanted to write. I felt more passionate about it than anything else I’d written.”

Sarah has clearly found her niche. “These are the stories I’m supposed to be telling, I think,” she says. “Ones that people enjoy – but also ones that challenge and resonate.”

Little Disasters is out now in hardback, published by Simon & Schuster and priced £14.99. It’s also available as an e-book.

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