Cork author explores difficult issues - from domestic violence to affairs - in new book

Sensitive issues, including domestic violence and affairs, as well as menopause, are tackled by Cork author in her new novel, ‘Beneath the Image’. COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with writer Vanessa Pearse
Cork author explores difficult issues - from domestic violence to affairs - in new book

Writer Vanessa Pearse.

A SQUARE peg in a round hole. That is how writer Vanessa Pearse describes herself when she was working as an accountant with Price Waterhouse Cooper.

She spent 30 years working with figures, including a spell as a self-employed accountant. The profession “served me well. I’m not complaining. But I wanted to change so I decided to try writing,” she says,

Vanessa, whose second novel, Beneath The Image, explores difficult issues such as domestic abuse and the menopause, had always dabbled at writing. She would write about complex emotions as a way of dealing with them.

About seven years ago, Vanessa, who divides her time between Dublin and West Cork where she and her husband have a house near Ballydehob, signed up for a course called ‘Wild Women Writing’ at the West Cork Literary Festival. “It was a very safe place where everyone opened up, put pen to paper and expressed their innermost fears.”

Out of a group of 16 women, four wrote about their experience of domestic abuse. It was a surprisingly high number and it stayed with Vanessa.

“We all have different images that we put out to the world. People can think that you’re alright, but you could be going through a rough time. The writing exercise definitely played a part in helping the women to acknowledge what they had experienced.

“I had known and supported another woman previously who was being abused. Since then, I’ve met other people, including a man, when it became apparent to me that things weren’t right with them.

“Writing or art can enable people to express what is going on for them. It can be happening to our next door neighbour. I’m very conscious that people are suffering coercive abuse, manipulation and gas lighting. They don’t know who they are and they think they’re at fault.”

A lot of the problem has to do with “a history in this country of not wanting to get involved in what’s called ‘a domestic’,” says Vanessa.

”Of concern was the cancellation of 999 calls to report domestic violence during the height of the pandemic. I understand that things have got better in that regard.”

In her new novel, Vanessa also writes about marital infidelity.

“There are different things that lead people to be unfaithful. It’s not always how it appears. These things are rarely straightforward.”

Vanessa says she is lucky to have “a good marriage”.

“I consider that very fortunate. I assume one has to keep working on these things.”

The character of Martha, who was the main protagonist in Vanessa’s debut novel, Deniable Memories, is betrayed by her husband for another women. This is not a spoiler. The confrontation - at a dinner party that includes the ‘other woman’ - opens the novel.

Vanessa has also tapped into a previously almost taboo subject, namely the menopause.

“It’s a subject that was tackled on Joe Duffy during the summer. I happened to have the radio on and I was delighted that the menopause was being talked about. There is so much misinformation out there about it. I had a grim time with the menopause for a number of years. That’s why I’ve written about it. I was just exhausted all the time and my eltroxin levels absolutely crashed.”

The lack of sleep was particularly debilitating.

“Every time I turned in the bed, I’d go into a night sweat. I had no energy and I’m naturally a very energetic person. That was a big shock to me.”

Eventually, Vanessa went on HRT. That was last year. The 57-year-old mother-of-four grown up children reckoned that whatever risks came with HRT, “I was definitely going to die from lack of sleep anyway.”

As it happened, she read a lot about hormone replacement treatment and realised “how safe it is.”

Vanessa explained: “The HRT that is available to us now is so much better. I’m delighted people are talking about it because so many women are quietly suffering.”

During the difficult years of her menopause, Vanessa wrote but she didn’t have the output that she’d have liked.

“I had to pace myself. I had that awful slump in the afternoon. I had to take naps.

“Numerous women (going through the menopause) are put on anti-depressants when what they really needed was HRT.”

Vanessa writes engagingly about issues affecting women.

“They are things I know about, sometimes through other people’s experiences. They’re very real issues.”

She also writes about the fall-out from the Celtic Tiger.

“We think all the damage it did is over. But there are still people suffering. It’s not all over. And who knows what we’re going to face when we have to deal with the fall-out from lockdown?”

For her third novel, Vanessa will be writing about drug addiction. “I don’t have first-hand knowledge but I have friends whose adult children have gone that way. I’m just very conscious how prevalent it is and how we’re sticking out heads in the sand.

“A lot of parents aren’t aware that their children, who are living under the same roof as them, are regularly using drugs.”

Vanessa is glad she made the leap from accountancy to writing. “I didn’t really want to become an accountant. My father died the day after my twentieth birthday. We were thrown into a bit of disarray. I accepted a job offer on the day of the funeral and I was reasonably good at accountancy.”

She also spent a year as a volunteer accountant for a charity in Sudan in 1989/90. Vanessa had to smuggle in $10,000 for the NGO she was working for, to avoid a punitive exchange rate. This was a highly risky thing to do and could have resulted in a prison sentence. But Vanessa, who was left sweltering in the airport for a day where she was interviewed, was lucky not to be locked up.

“I was left in no uncertain terms that they knew exactly what was going on. But they didn’t do anything about it.

“I totally understood that the punitive exchange rates effectively financed the war in Sudan. The World Bank kept threatening to pull the plug on the whole scheme, but they didn’t. The war created the need for charities to be there in the first place.”

The experience was fodder for Vanessa’s debut novel, with Martha’s story set against the backdrop of a fictionalised version of her experiences in Sudan. Like a good accountant, Vanessa doesn’t allow anything to go to waste...

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