June 6th was V.C Andrews’ birthday, an obscure fact that I stumbled upon, which then drove me to write something in honour of that fact. We all know V.C Andrews, maybe not by name, but if you have been a book reader for as long as I have, you would have heard of Flowers In The Attic. My first encounter with said book happened in the year I took my A Levels, where instead of focusing on ‘proper’ literary texts like Heart Of Darkness and The Great Gatsby, my head was buried in the pages of Andrews’ book. I wasn’t the only one.
Every girl in my class was passing it around. Yes, it was the one book which someone found in a second hand bookstore, lured in by the premise of dark family secrets. After buying and reading it, she needed someone to share the forbidden tale with, so she passed it to her friend, who then passed it on. The book was given to me casually, the loaner suggesting that I might enjoy this since she had been glued to it and finished it in one night. I was skeptical, until I read it.
There was nothing highbrow about it. The prose was simple and the characters were selfish and villainous, but I was hooked, as was everyone else in my class. Why were we so invested in the dark, messy lives of these characters? Maybe it’s because it offered such a drastic contrast to our own mundane lives, or the ardent curiosity to know what dark tales this book was peddling. Firstly, we have a mother figure who is completely ditzy and helpless after her husband dies. She goes back to her parents for help, parents who had cut her off because she married her father’s half brother. They say they are willing to let her return. The one catch? Her children aren’t allowed back. Her father doesn’t even want to catch sight of them.
So a compromise is forged where she hides the children in the attic (hence the title), and tries to win her father over so that she can weasel her way back into the inheritance, resuming her former life. Initially, she had every intention of doing all this so that she could provide for her children, but as time goes by, she falls back comfortably into her old lifestyle, and discovers that the children are baggage she no longer wants.
So get this. She starts to poison them slowly, and the children start to feel the effects, though they don’t find out why until later. The youngest dies, and the rest manage to escape. However, their lives are forever impacted by the traumatic events they suffered from being imprisoned in the attic. The two eldest children (Chris and Cathy) – as a result of being stuck together while going through puberty, and playing the roles of mother and father to their younger siblings – find themselves developing feelings for each other. There is also the other side to this, where their grandmother feels that these dark compulsions are a part of them because of their genetics. After all, they are products of an uncle and his niece.
This book is the first part of a series, and we see Cathy constantly fighting her feelings for her brother and turning to other men, despite knowing that none of them can actually replace Chris for her. Chris tries, though he isn’t as successful as Cathy, and eventually, the two make peace with the realisation that they are irrevocably changed by the events in the attic, and don’t wish to fight off those feelings anymore.
The scariest thing about novels that explore such forbidden subject matter is how much you as a reader find yourself rooting for what should not occur. There is also the lament, where you wonder how things would have been if their father hadn’t died so young, and they had been allowed a normal childhood. There is a modern version of this, aptly titled Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma, which is a less gothic version of the same tale.
Once again, it has siblings playing parental roles to younger siblings, and depending so much on each other that it turns into love. They aren’t locked away though, going to school and thus being exposed to people their own age. It is the dysfunctionality of their home life, dealing with an absent mother, that results in them seeking comfort in the other. And once again, we find ourselves drawn in by the love that they share, yet horrified at ourselves for empathizing with their plight.
There is a terrible beauty to tales like Flowers In The Attic and Forbidden, stories that blur moral boundaries, building a transgressive space for the reader to fall into, leaving you to wonder if the satiation of your curiosity was even worth it.
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