Novellist Sadie Jones: ‘There’s before Daisy died and there’s after’

Novelist Sadie Jones was blindsided when her stepdaughter took her own life while under hospital supervision. Speaking for the first time, she tells Elizabeth Day why, two years on, the family are still searching for answers – and peace.

On the first floor of her family home in Chiswick, West London, is novelist Sadie Jones’s study. The shelves are crammed with books and the overflow spills on to the floor. Above the desk is a hand-drawn map and tacked along its edges are photos of cars: a battered old Range Rover in one corner and a dingy red Vauxhall Astra in another. This is the germination phase of a new novel – her sixth. ‘I have to know what kind of car a character will drive,’ she says. ‘Whereas I can never imagine what their faces look like.’

Sadie’s debut, The Outcast, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2008. Her most recent novel, The Snakes, came out last year and set internet forums alight with its uncompromising ending. I won’t give anything away, but it is one of the most stomach-lurching final chapters I’ve ever read. ‘I thought it was the inevitable conclusion,’ Sadie, 52, says. ‘I had no idea of the controversy it would cause.’

The Snakes tells the story of the Adamson family. Griff, the father, is a retired property developer whose unscrupulousness is matched only by his avaricious nature. Mother Liv is a narcissistic socialite obsessed by appearances. Their daughter Bea works as a therapist, refusing any of her father’s financial hand-outs. When she and her artist husband visit her elder brother Alex at the rural French hotel he claims to run, a sinister tale unfolds.

Novellist Sadie Jones
Victoria Adamson

‘I was angry when I wrote the book,’ says Sadie. ‘That year, 2016, was difficult globally. There was this ominous feeling, after Trump was elected and the Brexit referendum, of people being driven apart. I remember shouting at Tim [her architect husband, Tim Boyd], “This is all terrible!”’ She pauses, before adding drily: ‘I can get a bit hysterical.’ But some emotions lay closer to home. Sadie handed in the first draft of The Snakes in September 2017. A month later, there was shattering news.

‘My stepdaughter Daisy was having a very hard time through that year,’ Sadie says. ‘Over most of 2017 she was unwell mentally and she went into hospital. In October, she killed herself.’

Sadie is picking her words carefully. It is taking an enormous effort for her to keep her voice even. Daisy had been part of Sadie’s life for 24 years. They met when Daisy was four and Sadie was 25 and dating her father; Daisy was from Tim’s first marriage. Sadie and Tim went on to have two children of their own – Tabitha, 23, and Fred, 21 – both of whom adored Daisy and looked up to her. She was a talented artist full of potential and much loved by the whole family. But Daisy struggled with an eating disorder, depression and addiction issues. By her mid-20s, she had worked hard to get better and was steadily employed in an office, attending regular therapy sessions. 

That all seemed to change when, in 2016, she got engaged. Sadie prefers not to mention him by name. ‘I’d rather not dredge up the details,’ she explains. ‘The facts are out there.’ Daisy’s fiancé, a drug-user, became violent and the relationship deteriorated. In July 2017 he called things off. Shortly afterwards, Daisy went into the private Nightingale Hospital, a mental health facility in Marylebone, London. Staff were sufficiently worried about her safety to put her on 15-minute checks, but, in October, Daisy was found dead in her room. She was 28. 

‘There’s before Daisy and there’s after,’ says Sadie. ‘Everything has changed. We are in a completely different world.’

A year later, an inquest was held into her death. The whole tragic episode was dragged up again, publicly. The family chose not to have legal representation, which meant that all the documents and disclosures were sent directly to them. ‘Everything from handwritten checks to the pathologist’s reports,’ Sadie says. ‘We printed up past Care Quality Commission reports from the internet and discovered there had been issues with the hospital’s safeguarding in the past. At the inquest, we questioned the witnesses. The hospital had a team of lawyers. We had an idea we could get some kind of “justice”, only to find at the end that the Nightingale was given the very lightest of slaps on the wrist. The coroner even apologised to Daisy’s psychiatrist for putting her through it.’

The inquest was told that a razor had been found in Daisy’s room before her death, and that she died while under the influence of cocaine, the day after a mystery visitor is believed to have delivered class A drugs to her ward. The hospital’s internal review concluded its procedures were open to abuse, and it was subsequently criticised in another report, but none of this could change the fact that Daisy was gone.

‘When someone dies young you constantly think about what their life might have been,’ says Sadie. ‘There’s this huge sense of outrage and injustice. About a year ago, someone else who had lost a child said to me that “any life is a completed life”, however short, and it really helped. It’s what pulls me back from a bottomless pit of rage, of “what ifs?”’ Sadie adds that ‘the whole process of the psychiatric system and how to navigate it needs to be overhauled’ and that many private hospitals are ‘run like hotels and that’s appalling’. But, in the end, she says that any hope she and Tim had of changing the system and saving other families from enduring the same nightmare had to be relinquished. ‘To begin with, every minute of every day was an effort not to be consumed by rage and blaming,’ she says. ‘But you have to forgive yourself for your own thoughts because your brain is trying to make sense of it. “If I hadn’t done this… if the hospital hadn’t done that… if he or she had… then maybe…” But that way madness lies. It’s both the worst thing and the best thing to do, to accept it, to separate injustice from sadness.’

Ultimately, all that is left is ‘trying to find love’ in the midst of darkness. It has, for obvious reasons, been an incredibly hard thing to talk about.

‘I’m incredibly proud of the life that Daisy led,’ says Sadie. ‘She tried so hard to be well. The manner of her death doesn’t define who she was. What I really dislike is the phrase “move on”. It’s all wrong. You live with it.’

It’s extraordinary, given this backdrop, that the novel Sadie was writing exists at all. But in March 2018, five months after Daisy’s death, she returned to the draft and got the job done. It was a dark period of her life; and it was a dark book that came out of it. How does she feel about the novel now, given what it must remind her of? ‘Mainly I feel proud I got through it, but in a way it got me through,’ she says. ‘Given the book is about grief and bereavement, among other things, it was emotionally, completely…’ She breaks off. ‘It was therapeutic in a way. It was extremely painful, but also the only thing I could have written about.’

It is a novel, too, about what it is to be human, and the darkness that lies within all of us. ‘There aren’t good or bad people,’ Sadie says. ‘Everyone is formed in some way from dysfunction, and we all connect to damage. Our happiness – and joy and health – is not separate from the damage or pain. There aren’t “the blessed” and “the doomed”, just the human and the flawed.’

Because every life, in its way, is complete.

The Snakes by Sadie Jones will be published on 20 February in paperback by Vintage