Susie Boyt: Scourge of the yummy mummy

Her new novel satirises the parenting styles of the well-off. She talks to Suzi Feay about odd domestic dynamics, and her own famous relatives

Susie Boyt had warned me in advance that her new novel, The Small Hours, had been described as "a bit relentless". But when I finally, breathlessly, reached the final pages (yes, in the small hours), I felt exhilarated as well as chilled. Boyt's central character, Harriet, has been teetering on the brink of catastrophe, but we are left with a tentative sense of hope.

"I've got this tremendous sense of loyalty to my characters," she explains, "and with all my other books I felt I had to leave them in a better place than I found them. I deliberately set out with this book not to do that."

I meet Boyt in a cheerful café near her north London home, where she often goes to write amid the hissing of the espresso machine and the greetings of locals. "Very early on," she continues, perched neatly on the edge of a leather sofa, wearing a chic lace skirt and boots, "I wrote the phrase 'because her family didn't like her'. I wanted to investigate what that would mean, and the idea of the lost sibling."

In the opening pages, Harriet Mansfield – 38 years old, 6ft 1in, red-haired – bids farewell to her beloved therapist, Miss McGee, after years of intense treatment. Her high spirits are rendered in heightened, slightly off-kilter prose. "One of the great things about Harriet was that she allowed me to use many more words than I would normally. My other novels felt shy of using adjectives, never mind adverbs, but because she is such a red and white, stripey, blotchy person, I allowed myself to be quite indulgent." There's a good example of this on the very first page, where Harriet feels the dawn's "bright white trousers, like a sailor, hoisting her spirits even further". The dawn is in white trousers, such as a sailor would wear, but the sailor is also doing the hoisting, like a sail. It's brilliant but a bit mad, a way of signalling Harriet's perilous mental state.

"That is so not how I write and I felt daring doing it," agrees Boyt, sipping her tea, "but this is someone having her celebration leaving-home-graduation-prom-night all in one day. She's walking away thinking, 'This is it, there's no stopping me'. I did question every one of those sorts of phrases, but I felt it was her."

Harriet uses money from an inheritance to found a school for girls, a plot line that provides a shrewd commentary on current anxieties about children and schooling. Boyt was trying to find a school for her own daughter at the time, and there are helpings of satire around both Harriet's ideals and pretensions, and the yummy mummies with their "Hellman's coloured hair" and "pale grey cashmere knitwear".

Boyt, who writes a column about life and fashion in the Financial Times, signals the complex messages that carefully chosen clothes give off. (And the not so complex: one mother sports "a large diamond pavé brooch on her lapel that bore in a pretty italic script the legend Crack Whore".) Such high spirits have a serious purpose, however.

"There is a certain amount of satire about neglected rich kids," she confirms. "Well-off, lively people not really paying attention to their children – I have seen that, and it's not good enough. Neglect can be as bad as abuse. I originally had a sad scene with children being woken up for school by nannies. Somebody told me that the Filipino word for 'poopy' is 'Boris' and I wanted to get that in! But it just didn't belong," she laughs regretfully.

The Small Hours may, she points out, be the only novel ever to have been abandoned halfway through while its author wrote a book about Judy Garland. Boyt's celebrated memoir, My Judy Garland Life, mingled her own life story, tragic in parts, with a passionate account of fandom. The novel, not quite gelling, was put away for a full-scale descent into the drama of the star's life.

"Harriet had to compete with perhaps the most high-spirited, darkest person there's ever been! I also had another baby in the middle of writing it. It must have affected it massively." The novel was completely rewritten five times, and reduced by 40 per cent along the way.

Boyt describes herself as "a good Freudian" when talking about the therapy subplot, but this has a double edge. She is the daughter of the artists Lucian Freud and Suzy Boyt, and half-sister to the fashion designer Bella, the novelist Esther, and the poet Annie Freud. Did she ever feel overshadowed by her famous family? The answer is a firm no: "Because two of my sisters published novels while I was still at university, that was very inspiring – it made it seem that it was something you could do, not a wild and crazy dream," she insists. "Both my parents always worked extremely hard," and they gave her, she says gratefully, "a graft ethic".

A question about how much she resembles Harriet elicits a thoughtful pause. "I suppose I'm a dark person with high spirits, but absolutely not on that scale," she says slowly. "Unlike Judy and Harriet, I'm an extremely cautious person. I don't like people to know what I'm feeling, or even thinking. I do believe in going the extra mile in life, but I know where to draw the line. For instance, I wouldn't spend 28 hours making marzipan fruits!" She is referring to a painful, but also funny scene of Harriet's typical overcompensation in the novel. Although Boyt adds: "I've done similar things – I've made stained glass windows from Fox's Glacier Fruits."

In contrast to Harriet, with her one, grim brother, the Freud clan is huge and sprawling. "It's very deluxe having a lot of siblings," Boyt says happily. How many have you got? I venture, tactlessly. She gives a mischievous grin. "I never answer that!"

The Small Hours, By Susie Boyt

Virago £14.99

'As a woman skirted by six small children you were infinitely powerful … she was phenomenal – completed vindicated and validated by her companions ... The girls' high spirits escalated further, Harriet's rising to meet them ...'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine