Dealing with Intergenerational Trauma in Bad Fruit by Ella King
By Eleanor Bowskill, Daisy Ward and Victoria Bromley
Ella King took time out of her day to discuss her incommodious debut novel, Bad Fruit. We delved into her suspenseful portrait of abuse, an absurd story of familial trauma, and judgement that somehow manages to explore these themes without dampening its more humorous elements.
The title, Bad Fruit, derives from a vulgar mother’s demands for glasses of spoiled juice, an obsession she must share with whoever is around to taste it. However, as the plot unravels, it becomes clear that her needs extend further to encompass an army of pristine pink teddy bears and a closet brimming with pink clothes. The household seems to detach from their dismal conditions, with the supposed patriarch often resigned to his chair whilst a wounded brother fails to fulfil his own parental duties.
It falls to Lily, the youngest daughter, desperate to survive her final summer at home before starting at Oxford, to calm household tensions. Lily has been moulded into a doll in her mother’s image. Her white complexion, considered an inadequate representation of her Chinese heritage, was forcibly disguised through dyed-black roots and brown-coloured contacts. This intentional overlap between mother and daughter soon encompasses non-physical attributes as Lily begins to experience flashbacks of a traumatic childhood that does not belong to her.
The plot unfolded around the vivid image of spoilt juice. King confessed that an “original novel” centred on “a girl in conversation with a gardening philosopher” had not yet been named Bad Fruit before her Faber Academy tutor, Sarah May, had asked her to write about the girl’s home life. The spoiled juice scene soon “pivoted the focus” of the plot as it became “emblematic” of the struggle to break free from generational trauma.
The novel felt claustrophobic and unrelenting from the start, but never too dense to consume. The light-hearted nature of particular sections created a sense of relief often difficult to find in the thriller genre. Whilst domestic abuse was a prominent theme, it was never depicted through reference to any graphic details. By her own admission, King wrestled with these stylistic choices throughout the course of writing Bad Fruit. She explained that “as someone who’s worked with survivors of domestic abuse, it was so important to be faithful to the reality of trauma, so Bad Fruit was never going to be an easy read.” Nevertheless, she was careful not to “traumatise readers or sensationalise violence.” In the end, it was decided that “a handful of details was enough to signal trauma.” These signposts could be as understated as sounds, movements or thoughts. Silence, in particular, “often pays most respect to the reality of trauma.”
With regard to historical traumatic experiences shared by particular communities, it is often argued that mutual acknowledgement of these traumatic events can ease the treatment process. The three siblings have earnest moments of recognition between one another that could ease their recovery. King agreed with this rhetoric, adding that “truth, even the smallest seed of it, is always the beginning of healing.” When writing Bad Fruit, she was inspired by a line from the British psychotherapist Julia Samuel who said that “unprocessed trauma from one generation goes down each generation until someone is prepared to feel the pain.” In the novel, Lily is ultimately the person willing to “confront her family’s darkness,” but to do that she must piece her own history together from her siblings.
Towards the end of the novel, it becomes clear that the mother is both a victim and a perpetrator, roles which are often considered mutually exclusive. This idea that the “good victim” needs to look and feel a certain way for their stories to be valid is dangerous. King points out that in a post #MeToo world, we are “just starting to comprehend the perniciousness of this idea in enabling cultures of silence, shame and abuse.” In Bad Fruit all of the characters are engaged in “cycles of harm” beyond the superficial level. Sitting on this spectrum does not excuse their actions, but it does “refute easy dichotomies of victim and perpetrator.”
King’s own experience of motherhood influenced the book in unexpected ways. The setting of Bad Fruit was the landscape of her maternity leave. She explained, “the museums, Greenwich Park, the Polar Explorer House were places I had time to become intensely familiar with.” Her own experience of motherhood also influenced the novel’s conception. In particular, she changed the race of the main character, Lily, to “reflect the particular challenges faced by multiracial children.” For King, “having a multiracial child made it suddenly urgent to contribute to a body of fiction that featured multiracial characters.”
To conclude our discussion, we turned to King’s future literary endeavours. Her current project is a feminist re-write of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita. In the original version, Lolita dies whilst pregnant at seventeen. In King’s revision, “Lolita is a young mother in her thirties when she reconnects with the man who’s ruined her life, and takes him on a journey of confrontation and revenge.”