Twenty years ago, Amanda Craig was in a supermarket when a thief snatched several bottles of whiskey and made a run for it. “A security guard gave chase,” she recalls, “and I was frozen to the spot. But an elderly woman towards the front of the shop wheeled her trolley into his path. She didn’t hesitate. She simply blocked him and he was arrested.”
The incident came back to her when she began working on her tenth novel, The Three Graces, about three octogenarian women living in Italy. “Because I’m fed up with hearing people say women become invisible as they get older.” She shakes her head. Now in her early sixties, the author of zesty social satires – including A Vicious Circle (1996) and Hearts and Minds (2010) – feels she’s become more willing to “speak up and be seen” with every passing decade.
“I first noticed it when I hit my fifties and started to grow a small but decorous moustache,” she explains cheerfully, via Zoom link from her home in North London. “You lose your fear. You lose a lot of conventional checks and balances. And it feels GREAT.” Looking at what the future held, she observed that her friends in their eighties and nineties were nothing like the stereotypically vague old ladies you usually find wandering through the subplots of contemporary fiction.
“The older women I know – including my mother, who is 95 – may be physically frailer than they were,” she says. “But they are witty, interesting, experienced and very good company. If more people listened to them they would know that. But we’re stuck with the idea that they could only be like Miss Marple if they have a brain: terribly quiet and mouselike. Old-fashioned.” Another shake of her long, blonde hair. “But now we’re talking about Boomers getting old, aren’t we?”
“For too long, women writing literary fiction – especially the funny kind – were not being taken seriously”
She’s right. Today’s “little old ladies” belong to a generation who had far greater independence than their mothers. It was the norm for them to have careers, financial agency, political independence. But the three strong-minded heroines of Craig’s new novel had very different lives before retiring to picturesque Tuscany. Diana is an impoverished British aristocrat. Ruth is an American doctor running an organic farm staffed by idealistic young volunteers. And Marta is a German concert pianist. They’re friends with occasionally opposing worldviews.
“Between them,” writes Craig, “they had four breasts, five eyes and three hip replacements. These were the price of living long lives, as were one divorce, one widowhood and one husband with dementia. Age had not diminished them: quite the opposite. They had become more concentrated versions of themselves, just as a pot of soup does, the longer it is simmered.”
As a plot-loving novelist who believes it’s her duty “to entertain”, Craig opens the novel with a midnight gunshot and drives her narrative with the imminent wedding of Ruth’s grandson, Olly. He’s a super-rich London banker. His fiancée is a devastatingly beautiful influencer determined to vlog every adorable inch of Ruth’s “cottagecore” home. Meanwhile, questions hover over the identity of a strangely capable volunteer farm labourer and a Zimbabwean wedding guest who appears to know neither bride nor groom. Drones buzz above the town, presumably belonging to the local Russian oligarch who lives in fear of Vladmir Putin’s assassins. And in a peasant hut on the oligarch’s estate dwells the insomniac hunter, Enzo, terrified of the illegal immigrants he believes poisoned his dog.
Born in South Africa in 1959 and raised in Italy herself before moving to London, Craig says she has “lovely Italian friends who are paranoid about what they see as the ‘invasion’ from Africa. I don’t feel I can judge them for feeling that. Italy, unlike Britain, is not an island and they do feel they are on the frontline with migration. It is a problem. Although Italy has lost so much of its young population. In the south there are quite a lot of farms and villages being saved by the arrival of North Africans who are keen to work the land.”
In recent years, Craig has been “delighted” to find herself described as a “state of the nation” novelist. 2017’s The Lie of the Land set urban and rural tribes against each other as they scrambled for property in Devon. 2020’s The Golden Rule was set in Brexit Britain, when the wife of a tech mogul asked a struggling single mother to commit murder. “For too long,” she argues, “women writing literary fiction – especially the funny kind – were not being taken seriously.” She’s still frustrated by the way much-feted male talents dominated the literary scene in her youth. “Those men?!” Her sense of injustice boils over. “They seem to have no awareness of what it’s like for all the people who were massively overshadowed by them.”
Instead, Craig found solidarity with fellow female authors. The friendship at heart of The Three Graces was inspired by her supportive relationship with authors Kathy Lette, Jane Thynne and Kate Saunders – who died in April, aged just 62. On the day we speak, Craig has been to lunch with friends to remember the “brilliant, naughty” Saunders, whose EE Nesbit-inspired Five Children on the Western Front won the 2014 Costa Children’s Book Award. She tells me the theme of “death and mortality” that hovers over her new novel was a consequence of “seeing poor Kate die”. But adds that her friend “was joking right up to the last minute she was conscious. I’ve never seen that kind of spirit and courage before. But then, if you are funny, why should your personality change at the end?” And why should your memory of friends change when they die? Craig laughs as she recalls how often she was annoyed by Saunders’ “total chaos”. It won’t surprise fans of Craig’s neatly-sprung plots to learn she’s “quite an organised person”, and she points out that “my bossiness irritated Kate in equal measure. And often it’s those differences that are part of the fun, the spark in our friendships, aren’t they?”
Craig tells me her editor feared that the snooty, aristocratic Diana was “too obnoxious a character” for readers to stomach. “But I resisted toning her down. She is snobbish, she is racist, she is very much a woman of her time and class. But she is the grit in the oyster. And, in her own way, she’s a stalwart.”
The three generations who congregate for the wedding on Ruth’s farm allow Craig to work through the culture wars now bubbling under – or boiling over – in so many families. She tells me that over the course of her own lifetime she’s seen her mother “go from being an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa and a Guardian reader to being much more right-wing and completely devoted to the Daily Mail. She wasn’t able to vote but it’s possible she would have voted for Brexit. My sister voted Brexit and there were a very sore few years because I’m a fierce remainer. But I refuse to condemn those who voted Brexit as ‘stupid, racist [or] bigoted’. Intelligent people voted that way for their own reasons.”
“I am determined not to write novels that will make people feel depressed”
On the other hand Craig’s daughter, Leonora (an author and publisher) is “more left-wing than I am. She’s a lesbian so she has a different take on sexual relationships. We have agreed to disagree on trans issues.” She shrugs, then smiles. “I find the differences of opinion quite stimulating. I would hate to have a cookie-cutter child.” She also sees that while she grew up during a period when “the march of progress seemed to be heading in the right direction,” her children’s generation have had to face a world “which seems to be heading back towards the 1930s. No wonder they’re more fearful.”
Over the course of The Three Graces, the novel’s diverse cast come to understand each other’s perspectives. Craig admits she set out to poke fun at Tania, the influencer, but softened towards her as she thought more deeply about the options available to younger people, and the predicament presented by Tania’s extreme good looks. In a tale of friendship, Tania’s isolation is a sorrow.
“Tania is based on a stunning model I knew once,” nods Craig. “She was so beautiful that rooms would fall silent when she entered. And she had no friends because of that. Women hated her and men lusted after her and feared her. It was the saddest thing you could imagine. Looks that appear to be gifts from a fairy godmother can be a terrible curse. One of my older characters, Diana, was once a great beauty so there’s some sympathy there. Diana knows that beauty can distort your personality.”
While The Three Graces doesn’t shy away from the grim social and economic realities facing 21st-century Europe, it’s still great, fizzy fun and a perfect holiday read. “I have written about situations involving terrible suffering and cruelty in my books, particularly in Hearts and Minds, where there’s a young woman who’s been trafficked,” concludes Craig. “But I am determined not to write novels that will make people feel depressed. I believe in the countervailing power of courage and goodness. So I create moral universes that are slightly skewed that way.” She beams warmly and tidies the scarf that’s already coiled very neatly around her neck. “I believe that good satire should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
“The Three Graces” by Amanda Craig is out now (Abacus, £18.99)
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail