India Knight - Comfort and Joy
Humour and musings on the redemptive qualities of Christmas
A complicated family life has India Knight purring about the redemptive qualities of Christmas. She tells Yasmin Sulaiman how this has made its way into her new novel
Upon the release of her lauded first novel My Life on a Plate in 2000, India Knight was hailed by critics as the natural heir to Helen Fielding in the still relatively new genre of chick-lit. Ten years later, the sequel to her debut is being released into an altogether more crowded market. However, the resurrection of Knight’s semi-autobiographical protagonist Clara in Comfort and Joy rejects many of the trappings of this much-maligned marketing label. Crucially, Clara and Sam – her original love interest – split up, thereby busting the happily-ever-after myth that plagues much romantic fiction.
For the author, this was a central, if unconscious, aim in writing the novel. ‘The aftermath of romance is always more interesting to me than the beginning,’ she says. ‘The lead-up to a relationship is always exciting and seemingly promises happiness forever but I’m much more interested in what happens two, five or ten years down the line and how people then manage the expectations they had initially, once that romantic period has elapsed.’
Knight is as well-known for her journalistic work as her several novels and non-fiction tomes. In addition to her regular columns in The Sunday Times, she made headlines last year as the first person to interview and reveal the true identity of controversial call-girl and author, Belle du Jour. But it’s her personal life that dominates her fiction and despite a vehement disclaimer in the opening pages of Comfort and Joy, Clara’s two-novel journey distinctly echoes the pattern of Knight’s own marriage to former Esquire editor Jeremy Langmead, and subsequent (now ended) relationship with Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan. ‘The basis of the book is 70% real,’ Knight admits, ‘but the stuff that actually happens is completely invented. Luckily, my family have been fantastic; they’ve all really liked it and been very supportive.’
This sense of unity is a fundamental part of the book, in which the action spans across three years of elaborate family Christmases (or ‘Christmi’, as one of the characters puts it). According to Knight, this festive setting is perhaps the most autobiographical element of the whole novel. ‘Like Clara, I am obsessed with Christmas. I’m not big on tradition or ritual generally in my life but I make a massive exception for Christmas. I think if you come from a complicated or fractured family like mine, Christmas is the one time of year that you can have your whole family trapped in one room and entertain the fantasy that it’s all going to be fine. In the book, I describe it as redemptive: that if everything’s fine on Christmas Day, it has the potential to be fine at any time.’
Knight manages to convey this festive redemption entertainingly well in Comfort and Joy, which alternates silly humour with semi-philosophical musings on marriage and relationships. However, it’s the latter that concerns her most. ‘As a columnist and a novelist, I think a lot about the expectations society has and how inflexible those expectations are. I’m constantly baffled by how women are supposed to deal with it all and I think, as an adult middle-aged woman, those questions are swirling around all the time. Or they are for me, anyway.’
Comfort and Joy is published by Fig Tree on Thu 25 Nov.