Today I’d like to welcome to my blog Helen Matthews, a super-talented author with huge social conscience. She talks about the difficult subject of modern-day slavery that inspired her latest release, The Girl in the Van.
When I’m asked what my novel The Girl in the Van is about, I sometimes find myself talking about the underlying theme, rather than the story – and that’s a mistake. Plot, characters and setting must always come first. Anything else that sneaks in must serve the story. This is especially true in the psychological suspense genre because readers expect a taut and tense page-turner. If the author meanders down side alleys or leaps on a soap box to bang on about a cause that’s close to her heart, there’s a risk of pulling the reader out of the story. It’s almost an invitation to mark the book DNF (did not finish).
So let’s start with the story. The Girl in the Van is a twisty page turner with the strapline: A tormented mother, an abandoned girl, a deadly game of survival.
There are three interwoven plots (Laura’s story, Ellie’s story and Miriana’s story) and to begin with there’s some necessary confusion about which of them is ‘the girl in the van’. Within the plot each character comes to the front of stage at various times. The main narrative is from the viewpoint of Laura, a former teacher, who’s lived a solitary existence since a life-changing event involving her sixteen year old daughter, Ellie. Escaping from Wales to London, Laura cuts all ties with her partner Gareth (Ellie’s father) and refuses to tell anyone her new address. For two years she struggles on in a mundane job before making an attempt to re-join the world. She buys an old campervan and joins a group holiday at a campsite in Tenby. Here, Laura’s path crosses with Miriana, a teenage girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ellie. As Laura discovers more about Miriana’s story – and who knows if that story is true? – chilling parallels to her own life emerge. Laura’s life is at risk because someone out there is determined to stop the truth about what happened to Ellie coming out.
The Girl in the Van is my fourth novel. It has multiple sub-plots and one of the major ones revisits the horrific world of human trafficking and modern slavery. Since researching modern slavery for my debut novel, After Leaving the Village, published in 2017, I’ve felt compelled to bring this hideous crime out of the shadows and make more people aware of it. After Leaving the Village was about a young Albanian woman who was trafficked to the UK on the promise of a well-paid career by a man she believed was her boyfriend. When I researched and wrote that book awareness of human trafficking was lower than it is now. In recent years it’s been (rightly) spotlighted in the media and is depressingly familiar to most of us, even if we only glance at News headlines on our phone.
But modern slavery comes in many different guises. It affects men and boys, not only women and girls; and UK citizens can also be ensnared, not just vulnerable people from abroad.
The Girl in the Van has a plot line about ‘County Lines’, a pernicious form of modern slavery that has been around for a couple of decades but has grown rapidly in the UK in recent years. ‘County Lines’ is where vulnerable children and teens are groomed by criminal gangs and used to carry drugs from cities out to smaller towns or rural areas often far from where they live. The ‘lines’ refers to the mobile phone used to place orders for drugs and to control the victims. Once lured into ‘County Lines’ gangs, it can be very hard for victims to break free. If they try to leave, retribution by the gangs is harsh.
A recent survey showed public awareness of this crime is less than of other forms of human trafficking and slavery. Sometimes parents don’t even realise their own child is involved because they don’t spot the signs. Research commissioned by the UK charity, Unseen (for which I’m an Ambassador) found that up to a third of UK adults don’t know what ‘County Lines’ is and 38% said they wouldn’t know what to do if they suspected their own child was involved.
Fortunately there are organisations that can help if you suspect a young person might be at risk. In the UK, the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, run by Unseen, provides expert advice and operates 24/7 on this number: 08000 121 700.
If you want to understand more about how this crime is affecting young people, step inside the pages of The Girl in the Van and I’ll show you, through the lives and stories of my characters, this and other ways a young person can be exploited. Whether I’ve achieved this in the novel will be for you, the reader, to decide but I’ll leave you with this extract from an early review by a reader of an advanced copy:
I really enjoyed this book. It has an intriguing premise and complex characters, moves at a good pace throughout, and touches on serious and complex themes including individual grief and vulnerability, as well as societal responsibilities towards the disadvantaged and dispossessed. It manages to be both thought-provoking and thrilling – no mean feat.
The Girl in the Van, published by Darkstroke Books, is out on 17 March in eBook and paperback and available at this link: https://www.mybook.to/thegirlinthevan
Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Her latest novel The Girl in the Van will be published on 17 March by Darkstroke Books. Previous novels include suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, which won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival, and was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press. Her third novel Façade was published by Darkstroke Books in 2020.
Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.
She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.
You can download The Girl in the Van or buy the paperback at:
or the international link