Celia Fremlin - The Hours Before Dawn

I’m tremendously excited that Celia Fremlin’s psychological debut is being reissued, nearly sixty years after it was first published. I discovered ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ only recently, when Crimesquad’s Chris Simmons persuaded me to start reading Fremlin, a British contemporary of Patricia Highsmith. I’m so glad he did, as I have since devoured many more of her books, which combine astute and witty social commentary with pin-sharp psychology and pleasingly twisty plots.

‘The Hours Before Dawn’ came out in 1958 (it won an Edgar soon afterwards) and has lost none of its power to shock and scare us. With so many modern fears to be faced, how can a quiet story about a new mother and her baby who doesn’t sleep disturb us so profoundly? Because there is little doubt in my mind that Celia Fremlin is the mother of the modern British psychological thriller.

Louise Henderson is a young housewife and mother, struggling to support her husband, two small daughters and a baby who won’t stop crying. In a state of extreme exhaustion, she starts to sense threat everywhere. Footsteps follow her down the street, shadows hold strangers, and her new lodger is only pretending to be a respectable schoolmistress when in fact she’s hell-bent on Louise’s destruction. How much of this is psychosis triggered by sleep deprivation is slowly unveiled as we follow Louise down the rabbit hole of her worst imaginings.

Fremlin’s writing and in particular ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ has influenced generations of female writers. Today’s crime contingent cite the debt they owe to this book — Erin Kelly, Tammy Cohen, Natasha Cooper, Laura Wilson and Jane Casey to name a handful. Speaking for myself, I relish the nightmarish manner in which it speaks directly to our fears as women.

We’re trained from an early age to fear certain things such as walking alone at night, strangers, even dressing provocatively. But we’re also encouraged to fear things which are unavoidable, like growing old or being by ourselves. Celia Fremlin insisted on walking alone at night well into her eighties and with Jeffrey Barnard co-presented a BBC documentary about nocturnal London which judging by the night scenes in ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ was a subject on which she was eminently qualified to comment. There wasn’t much that scared Fremlin, who advocated for assisted suicide and helped four friends in extremis to die. She has much to teach us about dignity, courage and of course writing damn fine books.

I except ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ to fly from the shelves. Recent events across the world had transfigured our fears, rational and irrational. There is a narrative of fear which, thanks to social media, is louder and less escapable than ever before. Against all this clamour, Celia Fremlin quietly and assiduously singles out what scares us, and allows us to indulge in the relatively safe pastime of confronting our terrors on the page.

BIO: Sarah Hilary’s debut, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, won Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer's Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it was a Silver Falchion and Macavity Award finalist in the US. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series was shortlisted for a Barry Award. Her DI Marnie Rome series continued with TASTES LIKE FEAR (longlisted for Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2017) and QUIETER THAN KILLING which was the Observer’s Thriller of the Month in March 2017.

Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary

Now read the Crimesquad Review of ‘Quieter Than Killing’.


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