Patricia Ferguson's latest novel is a gothic tale of crime, blackmail and redemption. It is also a story of modern publishing, albeit with its own implausibly redemptive ending.
It goes like this: an award-winning author, valued by her contemporaries, is puzzled to find her novels are no longer wanted by the major imprints. Despondent, she gives up writing altogether and starts training as a teacher. But in the nick of time, a tiny "print on demand" house shows an interest in her latest work. After a slow start and a couple of favourable reviews, the book, It So Happens, takes off. At first the author and publisher are bemused at the sudden influx of orders. All becomes clear when the author, reading her daily newspaper, comes across a feature on the Orange Prize longlist - and discovers to her amazement, that she has made the grade.
This true story is the more remarkable as the heroine is a middle-ranking author of a type now struggling to make a mark. Worse still, Patricia Ferguson, now 51 and a mother of two, has chosen to set It So Happens in the least fashionable of destinations, an old folk's home. Perhaps this is why, of the national newspapers, only the IoS deigned to review it, describing the novel as "hugely funny and upsetting - a tale of disappointed revenge and unexpected atonement... The airless atmosphere of the nursing home is immaculately evoked, as is the well-meaning ferocity of those who run it." This judgment was endorsedwhen the longlist of 20 titles was announced earlier this month.
So it's a happy ending for Ferguson, a past Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask prizewinner. "I told myself it was the way of the world," she said last week, describing her two-year hunt for a publisher as both destructive and dispiriting. "I was very disappointed. Eventually I came to the conclusion it was no good. I stopped thinking of myself as a writer."
Amanda Craig, who reviewed the book in the New Statesman, comments: "I'm furious that the book wasn't picked up by anyone else. It wasn't as if she didn't have a really good track record. The trouble with publishing is that with the accountants running things, everything is dominated by how much your last novel sold. For middle-aged, mid-list authors, the result is disastrous." So three cheers for one tiny publisher who was prepared to take a risk.
'It So Happens' is published by Solidus (£8.95)