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Eva Burke (TCD): Reading Domestic Noir in the Global Pandemic


It’s safe to say that 2020 hasn’t lived up to expectations for most of us. As the global pandemic continues to thwart plans and dominate the news cycle, people have turned to fiction for entertainment and comfort in record numbers. According to UK literacy charity The Reading Agency, 31% of UK people surveyed in April of 2020 claimed to be reading more in lockdown, with crime fiction standing out as a particularly popular genre for quarantined readers.[1] In recent years, one particular subgenre of crime fiction has dominated bestseller lists and continues to culturally flourish: domestic noir fiction (also known as ‘suburban noir’ or sometimes ‘chick noir’). The term ‘domestic noir’ was coined in 2013 by author Julia Crouch, who describes it as crime fiction that ‘takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.’[2] Books like Gone Girl (2012), Big Little Lies (2014), and The Girl on the Train (2015) are some of the more well-known examples, and each has spawned critically and commercially successful film and/or TV adaptations in recent years. My research is concerned with the popularity of this subgenre, particularly amongst female readers, and the extent to which these novels speak to specifically female anxieties regarding the private sphere, marriage, and motherhood. Anxieties regarding marital discord, economic insecurity, motherhood and suppressed psychological trauma punctuate narratives of domestic noir. According to author and critic Megan Abbott, domestic noir explores and gives expression to aspects of female experience which had heretofore been dismissed as inconsequential:


[domestic noir is] dealing with the sort of perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling      apart, of ambivalence with motherhood, the complexities of relationships among women — all this stuff that in some ways isn’t taken very seriously by the culture at large, is considered — and I’m quoting here — ‘women’s magazine fodder,’ but it’s actually very real to readers.[3]


So why, when the world is stuck on pause and we’re spending more time at home than ever before, have narratives centring on the potential hazards of that space remained so popular? It is worth noting, of course, that book sales in general have gone up during lockdown, as people have more time to read in quarantine, and that crime fiction has continually topped popular fiction bestseller lists.


Given that these novels typically shine a light on turmoil in the private sphere, perhaps it is not surprising that quarantined readers are turning to domestic noir as a means of engaging with the symbolic constraints of the home. Novels such as The Girl on the Train, Blood Orange (2019), and Before I Go To Sleep (2008) have centred on female protagonists whose inhabitation of the domestic space intersects with their experiences of intimate partner violence and the pressure of gendered expectations. The lived experiences of these female characters reflects the lived experiences of many female readers. Megan Abbott argues for the importance of this representation in terms of shining a light on the private traumas that many women have been conditioned to endure in the domestic sphere:


while some readers may have purchased the books simply to be part of the conversation about a zeitgeisty novel, the back-to-back blockbuster successes point to something larger going on: a desire among readers for stories that speak to their experiences—experiences they may not see reflected elsewhere, at least not as keenly. They respond to books heavy with the emotional violence of many marriages, of domestic life, of the weight of family judgement, and the complicated gifts of motherhood.[4]


These traumas have only been exacerbated by the global spread of COVID-19; recent data suggests that incidents of domestic violence have risen as quarantine restrictions limit peoples’ ability to leave the private sphere. According to the New York Times:


as quarantines take effect around the world, that kind of “intimate terrorism” — a term many experts prefer for domestic violence — is flourishing. […] In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 percent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier. […] Eventually, the lockdowns will end. But as the confinement drags on, the danger seems likely to intensify. Studies show that abusers are more likely to murder their partners and others in the wake of personal crises, including lost jobs or major financial setbacks.[5]


With this in mind, the fact that readers have continued to turn to works of domestic noir fiction in order to navigate the experience of quarantine makes sense – these novels can deepen readers’ understanding of the domestic space and their relationship to it.


Eva Burke is a graduate of Carlow College, Sp. Patrick’s with a B.A (Hons) in Humanities. She is currently a PhD candidate in the final year of doctoral studies at the school of English at Trinity College Dublin under the supervision of Dr. Clare Clarke. Her PhD research looks at domestic noir fiction, specifically the work of Gillian Flynn. Her research is funded by the Irish Research Council. Eva has previously published work in the Journal of International Women’s Studies, Feminist Spaces, Trinity Postgraduate Review, and the edited collection From the Domestic to the Dominant: The New Face of Crime Fiction, ed. by Laura Joyce and Henry Sutton (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).



[1] The Reading Agency, New survey says reading connects a nation in lockdown (2020) <https://readingagency.org.uk/news/media/new-survey-says-reading-connects-a-nation-in-lockdown.html> [accessed 1 August 2020].

[2] Julia Crouch, Genre Bender (2013) <http://juliacrouch.co.uk/blog/genre-bender> [accessed 1 August 2020].

[3] ‘The ‘Girl’ In The Title: More Than A Marketing Trend’, Morning Edition, NPR, 22 February 2016, Online Sound Recording, NPR.org <https://www.npr.org/2016/02/22/467392750/the-girl-in-the-title-more-than-a-marketing-trend> [accessed 1 August 2020].

[4] See Megan Abbott, Crime fiction in 2015: the rise of the Girl that could be any of us (2015) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/29/crime-fiction-gone-girl-on-the-train-2015> [accessed 1 August 2020].

[5] Amanda Taub, A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide (2020) <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html> [accessed 1 August 2020].



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