This “deliciously creepy psychological thriller” (Publishers Weekly)—think Strangers on a Train for the modern age—explores the dark side of love and the unbreakable ties that bind two sisters together.
Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful up-and-coming starlet. But behind their flawless façade, not everything is as it seems.
Callie, Tilda’s unassuming twin, has watched her sister visibly shrink under Felix’s domineering love. She has looked on silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and suspicious syringes hidden in the bathroom trash. She knows about Felix’s uncontrollable rages, and has seen the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms.
Worried about the psychological hold that Felix seems to have over Tilda, Callie joins an internet support group for victims of abuse and their friends. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to doubt her own judgment when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man. And then suddenly Felix dies—or was he murdered?
A page-turning work of suspense that announces a stunning new voice in fiction, White Bodies will change the way you think about obsession, love, and the violence we inflict on one another—and ourselves.
White Bodies 1 Spring 2017 The branches outside my window are spindly and bare, and Tilda stands across the room looking like a waif woman, saying: “How can you stand it? All those broken fingers tapping at the glass.” She’s opening the door, is halfway out: “Anyhow, I want you to come to Curzon Street this evening. I’m ordering Thai food and a DVD. Strangers on a Train. It’s an Alfred Hitchcock.”
“I know that.”
“Come about eight. There’ll be someone else too. Someone I want you to meet.”
The invitation sounds innocuous, but it isn’t. For a start, Tilda always comes to my flat for movie nights. Also, it’s unknown for her to introduce me to her friends. In fact, she rarely even talks about her friends. I can name only two, and those are girls she’s known since childhood. Paige Mooney and Kimberley Dwyer. I’d be surprised if she saw them more than once a year; so I’m curious and am about to say, “Who?” but she’s leaving as she’s speaking, disappearing down the communal stairs.
• • •
At Curzon Street, I’m clutching my bottle of cider, knowing full well that Tilda won’t have cider. And I’ve brought brownies.
She’s waiting on the second floor, at the open door of her flat. Then she’s greeting me with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, kissing my cheeks, saying brightly, “Callie!” Behind her, a tall fair-haired man is in the kitchen area, sleeves rolled up, busying himself with things in cupboards. He comes to say hello, holding out a thin hand, and from the way he stands, so firmly inhabiting his space, I realize that he’s accustomed to being there. Tilda gazes at him proprietorially, glancing at his hair, his shoulders, his bare forearms. She says, “Callie meet Felix. Felix Nordberg.”
“I’m opening a bottle of white,” he says. “Will you have some?”
“No, I’m fine with cider.” I hold up the Strongbow bottle for inspection and take it to the kitchen counter, thinking that Felix seems to be in command of things. The kitchen, the wine. Then he starts asking me polite questions in a soft, moneyed voice that makes me think of super yachts and private islands. Where do I live? Do I enjoy my work at the bookshop? I ask him about his work, which is for a Mayfair hedge fund.
“I don’t even know what that means. Except that it’s a sort of gambling.”
He laughs. “You’re right, Callie. But our clients prefer to call it investing, so we humor them.”
I sense that he’s humoring me too, and I watch him pouring our drinks with precision, examining the label of a French Chablis, checking that the wine reaches the perfect level in the glass. And he’s careful with my cider, treating it like precious nectar, even though it’s in a plastic bottle with a gigantic red sticker that reads £3.30. He hands Tilda her wine, and she flashes him a half smile as their hands touch. Then Felix gets back to the kitchen cupboards, taking out plates and bowls, wiping them with a cloth and sorting them into piles, at the same time telling me how to short a market.
“Think of it like this, I’ll sell you this plate for the current price of ten dollars, agreeing to deliver it to you in three months’ time. Then, just before the three months is up, I’ll buy in a plate for nine dollars. You see? I’m betting that the plate market will go down and I’ll make a profit of a dollar.”
“That’s an expensive plate.”
“Felix likes expensive things,” Tilda offers from her position at the end of the sofa. She’s decoratively arranged, her feet tucked up, hugging a velvet cushion with one hand, holding her glass with the other, and she’s observing us, wondering how we’re getting along.
I look at Felix, to see if he’ll say “That’s why I like your sister,” but he doesn’t. He just grins as if to say, Got me there! and opens the cutlery drawer, taking out the knives and forks and polishing them. I don’t comment. Instead I ask Felix where he comes from, and how long he’s been in London. His family is from Sweden, he says, but he grew up in Boston, USA, and considers himself to be a citizen of the world. I snigger at the phrase, and he tells us that he’s trying to get to grips with England and London.
“What, queuing and minding-the-gap and apologizing all the time, that sort of thing?”
“Yes, all that. And the self-deprecation, and the way you guys make a joke of all situations, and find it difficult to accept compliments . . . Did you know, Callie, that those dark eyes of yours are enigmatic, soulful even?”
Feigning a serious expression, he looks right into my face and I feel embarrassed because he’s so handsome and so close to me. But I feel he’s including me in the joke, not laughing at me.
I move away, hot-cheeked, and as I pour myself more cider, I think that he’s intelligent and funny and I like him.
Tilda says, “Come and watch the DVD,” so I pick up my glass and head for the other end of the sofa, intending to re-create the movie nights at my flat, when we sit like that, at each end, passing brownies back and forth and making little comments like “Keanu Reeves looks sad in this,” or “Look at the rain outside, it’s going sideways.” Nothing that amounts to conversation, but enough to make things seem companionable, like we’re children again. But I’m too slow. Before I can establish myself, Felix has taken the space next to Tilda, making it obvious that I should be banished to the old armchair. So I flop down and put my feet up on the coffee table, while Tilda presses the start button on the remote.
Felix and I haven’t seen Strangers on a Train before, but we both like it, the chilling effect of the black-and-white, the clipped 1950s voices and mannerisms, and we all have comments to make as the drama unfolds; but Tilda, being an actress, and some sort of expert on Hitchcock, chips in more than Felix and me. Hitchcock put his evil characters on the left-hand side of the screen, she tells us, and good characters on the right. I laugh. “So I’m evil, because I’m sitting over here, and you’re good, Tilda.”
“Except, silly, on-screen that would be reversed. So I’m bad and you’re good.”
“I’m the most interesting,” Felix says. “I’m in the middle and can go either way. Who knows what I’ll do?”
“Oh, look at Ruth Roman!” Tilda’s suddenly distracted. “The way her lips are slightly parted, it’s so suggestive.”
I say “Hmm” in a skeptical way, pouting, and Felix raises an eyebrow. But Tilda isn’t put off.
“And Robert Walker is incredible as a psychopath. He does that clever thing with his eyes—looking so calculating. Did you know he died just after this movie, because he was drunk and his doctor injected him with barbiturates?”
“The other guy is using his wrists,” I offer. “He’s doing wrist acting.” Tilda laughs.
“I like the plot,” I say.
“Patricia Highsmith . . . She wrote the novel that the film is based on.”
The idea is that two strangers on a train could swap murders. The psychopath with the calculating eyes offers to murder the estranged wife of the wrist guy, if, in return, the wrist guy will murder the psychopath’s hated father. The police will never solve the crimes because neither murderer would have any connection to his victim. There would be no discernible motive.
“It’s a brilliant idea for a film,” I say, “but it wouldn’t work in practice. I mean, if you were plotting a murder and wanted to do it that way.”
“What do you mean?” Tilda is nestling into Felix.
“Well, you’d have to travel on trains the whole time, planning to fall into conversation with another person who also wants someone murdered. It’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, everyone wants someone murdered,” she says.
Felix rearranges Tilda so that her legs lie over his lap, his hands resting on her skinny knees, and I notice that they are beautiful people, with their fine bones, smooth, translucent skin, and shiny blond hair, looking like they are the twins. They pause the movie to open another bottle of the same French wine and Felix says, “Of course you’re right, Callie, about the murder plot, but these days you wouldn’t have to travel on trains to meet another murderer, you could just find someone on the internet, in a forum or a chat room.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“I suppose it’s true,” says Tilda. “The internet is where psychos find each other.”
• • •
We watch the final scenes, and afterwards I say I need to get home, but I’ll go to the bathroom first. It’s an excuse; I don’t really need a pee. Instead, once I’ve locked the door, I ferret around and find that there are two toothbrushes in a plastic tumbler, and a man’s shaving gear in the cupboard over the sink. Also, the bin is full of detritus: empty shampoo bottles, little nodules of old soap, wads of cotton wool, used razors, half-used pots of lotion. I realize that Felix has been tidying up Tilda’s bathroom mess, just as he was organizing the kitchen; and I’m happy that someone’s looking after her, sorting her out. I reach farther into the bin, and pull out a plastic bag wound around something hard. Sitting on the toilet, I unwrap it expecting something ordinary, an old nail polish or lipstick maybe. Instead I extract a small used syringe, with a fine needle, and I’m so shocked, so perplexed, that I head straight back into the sitting room, brandishing it, saying, “What the hell is this?” Felix and Tilda look at each other, faces suggesting mild embarrassment, a shared joke, and Tilda says, “You’ve discovered our secret. We’ve been having vitamin B12 injections—they help us stay on top of things. Intensive lives and all that.”
“What? That’s crazy.” I’m incredulous, and am still holding the syringe in the air, defiantly.
“Welcome to the world of high finance,” says Felix.
“Really!” Tilda starts laughing at my stunned face. “Really. There’s nothing to be alarmed about. Lots of successful people do it. Actors do it. . . . Bankers do it. . . . Google it if you don’t believe me.”
Then she adds, “Hang on—why the fuck are you going through my bin?”
I can’t think of an answer, so I shrug helplessly. Tilda gives me a wonky face that says You’re incorrigible!, and then she says I’d better be getting home. She fetches my coat.
Felix says he hopes to see me again soon, and as I leave he gives me a quick affable hug, the sort that big rugby-playing men give to nephews and nieces.
• • •
At home, I open up my laptop and start googling vitamin injections. Tilda’s right, it turns out, and I’m amazed at the weird things professional people do in the name of “achieving your life goals.” I decide to let it go and to accept that Tilda and Felix live in a different world from me. Then I start to make notes on both of them, working in the file I call my “dossier.” It’s a habit that I’ve had since childhood—monitoring Tilda, observing her, checking that she’s okay. I write: Felix seems like a special person. He has a way of making you feel like you’re in a conspiracy with him, sharing a joke about the rest of humanity. I’m astonished that she let me meet him, and, now that I have, I’m pleased that she’s met her match and that he is looking after her so well.
This reading group guide for White Bodies includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jane Robins. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
White Bodies follows Callie, a young woman who works in a bookstore, as she watches her glamorous, talented twin sister, Tilda, visibly shrink and diminish under the domineering love of her new boyfriend. Callie, unassuming, but with sharp observational skills, acts as Tilda’s mirror.
So when the flawless façade on Tilda and boyfriend Felix’s relationship starts to crack, Callie start to think everything is not as it seems. Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple on the outside: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful up-and-coming starlet. But Callie watches silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and ominous syringes in the bathroom trash.
But when she learns about Felix’s uncontrollable rages and the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms, Callie is so worried that she joins an internet support group – controllingmen.com – for the victims and families of women enduring abuse from their partners. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to question herself and all those around her when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man.
And then suddenly Felix dies—or was he murdered?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. We all watch the world around us, but some, like Callie, may watch it more closely than others. What do you think accounts for this nosey, sometimes obsessive behavior in Callie?
2. What was your first impression of Felix? If you had observed the same things that Callie had as she was first exposed to Tilda and Felix’s relationship, how would you have reacted?
3. Is Callie a reliable narrator? How do you know?
4. How are Callie and Tilda’s physical differences reflected in their personalities and the roles they each play in their relationship with one another? How does this evolve over the course of the novel?
5. Do you think Callie is jealous of Tilda? Why or why not? Consider Tilda’s previous relationships and Callie’s actions toward each of Tilda’s partners.
6. After the first confrontation about Felix, Callie writes in her dossier: "When I talk to her, I make everything worse. I drive her to HIM" (p. 41). What might you have done differently in Callie's shoes?
7. How do Wilf and Daphne start to change Callie's perception of herself? How does her image of herself change in relationship to Tilda throughout the novel?
8. Callie claims that she must watch over Tilda; Tilda claims that she must protect and care for Callie. Which twin is really taking care of the other?
9. How is obsession portrayed throughout the novel? Consider how it affects Callie, Tilda, and Scarlet, in particular.
10. What role does Liam play in Callie’s understanding of Tilda? What roles do Callie and Tilda’s mother play?
11. How does Callie's outlook change as she gets deeper into the controllingmen.com forums? How do her relationships with Belle and Scarlet influence her?
12. How did you react to Scarlet’s true identity? Why do you think Callie agrees to meet Scarlet in person?
13. Does Callie get her happy ending? Does Tilda?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Keep a dossier for a week of your daily observations, just for fun, and see what you might be missing on a regular basis! Practice your powers of observation at a local park, restaurant, coffee shop, etc., or take notes on an interaction with a friend, co-worker, or family member.
2. Watch Strangers on a Train and Single White Female, and discuss with your book club. What similarities do you see to White Bodies? Which film reminds you most of Callie? Which reminds you most of Tilda? Why? Do you think they would see themselves that way?
3. “I’m reading for my close-up, Mr. Hitchcock!” Who would you cast in the film version of White Bodies? Share your ideal picks for Callie, Tilda, Felix, Wilf, Belle, Scarlet, and more, with your book club.
A Conversation with Jane Robins
What was your inspiration for White Bodies?
My biggest inspiration was Alfred Hitchcock. I wanted to write a thriller that had a highly personal, thoughtful element to it—which, in turn, infused the novel with tension and an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. For most of the novel the reader is stuck inside Callie’s head – which is not an easy place to be. Hitchcock was brilliant at creating that intense point of view. When I’m writing, I think visually, as though I’m writing a scene for a movie. I was also inspired by Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier, whose work I adore.
How did your work as a journalist and as an author of historical true crime books prepare inform or inspire you as a writer of fiction?
I don’t think I could have written a novel when I was younger, as fiction is the most difficult sort of writing for me—although I love it the best! I needed to learn the craft of writing and editing first. Journalism taught me to get to the point quickly, to delete everything that’s unnecessary no matter how proud you are of your prose, and to be careful with adjectives and metaphors—only use them if they are spot on. Writing historical books taught me how to structure a long-form narrative and how to build to an ending. A first or second draft is never good enough. I re-write everything countless times.
Were you more of an observer as a kid, like Callie? Or a performer, like Tilda? Did you ever have a dossier like Callie?
I was more like Callie, but I wanted to be more like Tilda. So perhaps my childhood was the greatest inspiration for the novel! When Callie walks around the playground at school, observing the children playing, she’s me. I have a strong memory of being about ten years old and auditioning for the lead in the school play, and I noticed two of the teachers exchange a giggling glance. I suddenly realized I was over-acting terribly. I also thought I was too plain to be the lead, so I ended up playing a sunbeam. Tilda would have won the part instead.
Do you have any siblings? Did they, or anyone else, influence the way you envisioned Callie and Tilda's relationship?
I have a brother and a sister. My sister Carol and I are close in age, just 18 months apart. I have experienced the intense bond of the sister-sister relationship and I dedicated the book to her. We actually get along brilliantly and are entirely on the same wavelength, but I do remember as I child that I thought of her as ‘the pretty’ one—more popular and social. So I tapped into that, although it was never a big part of my life as I had many other things going on! I became the rebellious one.
How did you approach writing Callie and Tilda’s dynamic as twins differently than you would have written a non-twin sister pair?
My sister, Carol, has fraternal boy-girl twins who are in their early twenties. They are very different personalities, yet they share an extraordinary bond and understand each other at a deep level. So I have observed the twins relationship and find it interesting. But what I liked most the symbolism of Callie and Tilda being twins is that it’s like all their characteristics were formed in the same womb and were just divided up in a fortuitous way. Somehow, they are two sides of one extreme person.
What do you want readers to take away from the complexity of Tilda and Felix’s relationship?
I really liked Felix, and felt sorry for him. As I was writing his character, I kept thinking how misunderstood he was just because he was odd. In my head, he wasn’t nearly as bad as Lucas made him out to be, let alone Tilda. I gave the readers a glimpse into his true character when he takes Callie to dinner at The Wolseley and she starts to doubt her assumptions about him. At the same time, I was also writing a co-dependent relationship that was invented by Tilda, but had psychological integrity. The notion of being ‘excited’ by violent extremes and by ‘proving’ you’re alive by feeling pain is very dark, but something I can relate to.
Are you interested in classic films as Tilda and Callie are? Besides Strangers on a Train, have other films influenced your writing?
I’m not a classic film nut, but like films that are gripping because of the psychology of the characters and their interactions. I adore Single White Female and Rebecca, both of which I mentioned in White Bodies, and inspired my novel. And I wrote Callie loving the Winona Ryder version of Little Women because it’s one of my favorite films, and as a child, like so many others, I desperately wanted to be Jo March.
What interests you about the anonymity of the Internet? What inspired you to bring this classic Strangers on a Train set-up into the modern era?
I happened to watch Strangers on a Train at home, and it occurred to me that it would be so much easier to swap murders these days if you did it online. I had been thinking about the line ‘the internet is where psychos find each other’ long before I watched the film, or dreamed up White Bodies and put the words into Tilda’s mouth. Apart from being a good starting point for my novel, it is also a real world worry that makes me anxious. It’s how people with a propensity for violence discover each other; it’s how internet groups build into abusive mobs.
Has anything surprised you about the process of writing fiction, vs. non-fiction?
Only how much I love it! I thought that I was happier writing thoughtful prose when I didn’t have to invent the facts as well, but it turns out that I do enjoy making stuff up! I used to think I was no good at it. Now I think that it is my (wonderful) job to transform my first drafts into something better.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing my next psychological thriller. It’s about five students at an intense writing workshop in a very beautiful, remote place—and things start to get very strange in the group. Like White Bodies, it has British and American characters, as well as some from other parts of the world.
Jane Robins began her career as a journalist with The Economist, The Independent, and the BBC. She has made a specialty of writing historical true crime and has a particular interest in the history of forensics. She has published three books of nonfiction in the UK, Rebel Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2006), The Magnificent Spilsbury (John Murray, 2010), and The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams (John Murray, 2013). More recently, she has been a Fellow at the Royal Literary Fund.
A psychologically sophisticated tale that centers on the bond between sisters. Callie fears that her sister, Tilda, has married a dangerous man – but her attempts to help reveal a shocking truth. Creep-tastic!
– Good Housekeeping
A suspenseful and twisty foray into the world of obsessive love that suspense junkies should not miss.
– Library Journal
[A]n utterly unputdownable story of the blurred line between obsession and love....From its disarming first pages to its shocking conclusion, WHITE BODIES is original and inventive - a breath of fresh air in a crowded genre, and a 2017 must-read.
– Crime by the Book
A dark tale of personal obsession and deceit, with many unexpected plot twists, disturbing revelations and an unpredictable conclusion....Robins shows remarkable talent in crafting a compelling, memorable psychological thriller.
– Lansing State Journal
A hard-to-put-down page-turner…the constant sense of unease, the continual second-guessing by both reader and characters, and the sense of deep flaws in ordinary people living what look to be ordinary lives that make this novel so intriguing—and disturbing.
– Reviewing the Evidence
A compelling psychological thriller that shines light on love and obsession and where they may lead. Robins is a writer to watch.
The perfect thriller.
Gripping, creepy and very addictive!
– B. A. Paris, New York Times bestselling author of BEHIND CLOSED DOORS