When Merseyside author Caroline Smailes came up with the idea for a Christmas novel set in Liverpool she was told to drop it.
Nobody would want to read that, she was told, not about a ‘working class girl from Liverpool’.
But with “no other place I could set this story”, Caroline decided to prove them wrong – and the result is the Scousest Christmas story you could read.
Packed with warmth, humour and lots of swearing, The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke is the tale of a girl who has lived all her childhood in foster care and is in need of a Christmas miracle.
That comes in the form of St Nicholas, a fat man with a penchant for gold thongs who is, as he regularly points out, very definitely NOT Santa.
And although he is there to save Theo, who is more alone than ever after recently losing the love of her life, she ends up having to try to save him instead.
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Caroline says: “Liverpool at Christmas is full of magic. I’ve had the idea to write this novel or rather a story about St Nick for 25 years, and finding out that he was the patron saint of Liverpool was a gift.
“I love Liverpool – I love the voice and humour, and I wanted to write a festive novel that wasn’t ‘traditional’, in that it wasn’t a ‘boy meets girl and the boy saves the girl’ type romance.
“Liverpool had all the elements I needed to add humour to the sometimes gritty, dark aspects. It’s a city of survivors and a city that welcomes those without another place to belong.”
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Caroline finds herself drawn to writing about the ‘underdog’ – people who have been dealt a difficult hand in life. And it’s this that makes her novels so compelling.
She says: “I like writing about survivors, searching for a place to belong, but also ones who still have hope despite what’s been thrown at them.
“Theo being working class and northern makes her underrepresented in being a ‘hero’ in fiction. Also, I’m working class and northern. I guess I’m writing what I know and possibly this novel is the most personal one I’ve written.”
Caroline herself experienced the “sudden, unexpected death of someone I loved with all my heart”, quickly followed by a second personal tragedy. She started writing The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke as a way of managing her grief.
She says: “It felt like the ground had been swept from under me. I couldn’t show my grief or fall into it, I had to function and maintain a ‘public’ face for my children and working life.
“I guess writing this novel saved me. I accept that it has moments that are gritty, that are raw, but that’s perhaps me being honest about my view of the festive time too. That if we expect ‘perfection’ and constant joy, then surely no festive time could ever live up to those expectations?
“The best moments are often when we relax and in the little things that catch us off-guard, that are sometimes the product of a mishap or an unexpected twist. I think this year, more than any other year, we need a Christmas without filters and expectations.”
Like Theo, Caroline found hope amidst the pain – although it was without the help of a time-travelling man in a red suit (NOT Santa) and a quest to stop his evil brother from destroying society.
She says: “There’s a moment when learning to dance with grief, when profound joy catches you off-guard. The book’s message was always about hope, about finding and embracing those reasons to live alongside loss.
“There’s the old cliché of how ‘life goes on’ but there’s also that moment when the decision to participate in life has to be made.”
This year in particular, we all need the ability to find hope at a difficult time. It has been a challenging 2020 for everyone, but particularly for those who have lost loved ones at a time when even the chance to celebrate their lives has been restricted.
Caroline would like her novel to help others who are grieving.
She says: “I’d love for the book’s message to be that it’s okay to be happy, that it’s okay to laugh, to feel joy, to be festive and that experiencing those emotions doesn’t mean that you didn’t love the person enough.
“That the measure of your grief should never be in how long you pause your life to mourn. But, more than that, I’d like it to be a reminder to live and an echo of the fear that comes from the realisation that yours is a life half lived. If nothing else this year, the fragility of life and impermanence have been in our daily life, and with that comes fear.
“I’m trying to flip the fear and to find positives in grabbing tiny moments of joy and kindness. Also – I feel I should add – it’s not all darkness, there’s humour in there too. I mean, it’s set in Liverpool, you’d expect nothing else.”
The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke by Caroline Smailes is available now.