Beth has form and followership. Children of the Sun is her fourth novel and goes on sale 25 May. The Oxford-based novelist and publishing professional is now established to the point where readers say that they want ‘the next Beth Lewis novel’ rather than caring about the genre.
Yet she still joins the ranks of writers who find themselves abused and confused by genre demarcations. ‘My writing combines elements of crime, thriller, speculative fiction and magical realism,’ she says. ‘My novels are situated in the real world but all is not quite what it seems. This can sometimes cause confusion with publishers who aren't always sure where to place it on a Waterstones shelf.’
Children of the Sun is inspired by the Heaven’s Gate cult, a religious group founded in 1974 who believed that when they died they would ascend to a spacecraft trailing in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet.
It is nominally situated in America, not only because that’s where the juiciest cults seem to spring up, but she notes, ‘because all my novels involve wilderness, and it’s not possible to go completely off-grid in the UK because you walk a few miles and you bump into a Coop or a Post Office.’
Raised by a single mum in ‘very rural north coast Cornwall,’ Beth says that she has always been suspicious of norms and drawn to wildernesses.
As a student at Oxford Brookes University, she found herself repeatedly drawn to the magnificent views across Oxford that greet you from Shotover Park, significantly situated above and to one side of the city, outside its vehicular ring road and as such floating in an indeterminate periphery.
It is the closest thing to an English wilderness, tamed and shaped by the proximity of Oxford and the cyclists and dog walkers and students who go there daily.
‘I used to go there once the work had been handed in and at the end of a term, all done and relaxed, whether it was winter or summer. There’s the gorgeous view and the extended woodland, but there is also relatively little light pollution so the star-gazing can be amazing’, she says. ‘I would sit there and think for extended periods of time, allowing my head free rein.’
Shotover Country Park, to use its proper name, is managed by Oxford City Council and may exist as a rather shadowy semi-reality in the minds of generations of students. Most of us have heard of it but not all of us have actually visited.
For a start, it is an extensive, 280 acres in size, and to get there isn’t immediately straightforward. You have to travel along Old Road eastwards from a scrubby bit of Headington, over the ring road on a narrow bridge and then up a pretty steep climb frequented by cyclists in search of a workout.
But Shotover is going through a renaissance currently, as people become more aware of the value of habitat and space in otherwise congested urban settings.
The hillside is south-facing and at the top covered in heathland and short grassland, marsh and wood lower down, and then the ancient woodland of Brasenose Wood at the bottom. The whole site is of inestimable value to wildlife.
Seen through the eyes of Beth Lewis however it begins to assume a different aspect.
There are three core individuals who drive the plot of Children of the Sun, James the journalist in search of an interview with the Atlas cult leader Sol, Eve, a former cult member in search of revenge, and Root, an existing cult member child who seems to be at one with the wood but at risk, whose speech adopts a strange grammar of its own and whose best friend is called Leaf:
‘We get to the trees and into the forest and the sun cools on my skin and I smell the rotty leaves and dirt and I love it,’ says Root early on. ‘These trees are my trees and I know all their names and where they sit.’
The shadowy cult is a sun worshipping cult, the young offspring of members called Sunbeams.
There is an eclipse coming up and the threat of death – a moment when the ‘Door will Open’, the ‘will they or won’t they drink the Kool Aid’ moment.
No plot spoiler here, but the prose is freighted from the start with a sense of anxious urgency, a certain dread set in vast tracts of forest that are liberating and harrowing at the same time, cool and green yet threatened by uncontainable fires.
‘I’ve always loved woodland,’ says Beth. She studied English and Publishing at Brookes between 2005-8, then went off to London for ten years and is now based with her wife in Old Marston, raising a daughter.
In a pandemic-alluding hint, she says in her acknowledgements that the book was originally drafted in 2017-18, ‘before my daughter was born, before the world ended.’
The book is preoccupied with paths taken and not taken, or ‘how a single choice can change the course of a life and how to live with, or not, wondering what could have been.’
One thing is certain – you won’t view Shotover Park in quite the same way after reading this.