Lizzy Barber is roaring with laughter. We are in a north London café, and the comment that has caused her to crack up is my suggestion that she seems like too nice a person to have created the truly unpleasant characters in her new psychological thriller, Out Of Her Depth.
Then she confides that she absolutely loves horror, which, to say the least, is unusual for a woman who, on the surface, presents like many north London Yummy Mummies.
But, as I discover, there is much more to Barber than Yummy Mummy — though she is both strikingly pretty and the besotted mother of a three-year-old son.
Barber is both a well-received author — her new book is a Richard and Judy Book Club pick for the summer — and a “name” in the food industry, thanks to a surely unique partnership with her brother, Jamie Barber. He is chief executive of London’s Hush restaurant group, which includes the Hache Burgers chain and the Cabana Brasilian Barbecue group. And his sister is the head of brand and marketing for the restaurants.
Hers sounds an intriguing upbringing: she grew up in Highgate but effectively as an only child, since there is a 15-year age gap between her and Jamie.
“My father is a now retired property developer, and my mother is eighth generation sabra, from a big Israeli family called the Moyals, part of the founding group of families of Tel Aviv. My mother was born in Tel Aviv but my grandfather was born in Egypt, served in the British army, and they moved to Cairo quite soon after my mother was born. They came to London in the early 50s”.
One of the most famous landmarks in Israel, the Jaffa clock tower, was built at the initiative of Joseph Moyal, a leading member of the Moyal clan.
A clever child, Barber attended North London Collegiate School, followed by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where she read English. “I had lots of Jewish friends at school but I was always the least Jewish of my Jewish friends. I was always very aware and proud of my Jewish identity, but it was only as I got older that I really started to embrace it.”
She began to explore Judaism more once she got to Cambridge, she says, though there weren’t too many Jews with whom to share the exploring. And, in fact, she began her writing career by learning about her grandmother’s life, researching in the British Library about the early days of the mandate and pre-state Palestine.
Though religious observance played very little part in her home life when she was young, Barber has gone out of her way to embrace Jewish festivals and pass on her heritage and traditions to her son. She met her husband, now a well-established food writer, when she was at Cambridge — “we started dating in our second term and we’ve been together ever since” — but she looks back more fondly on her school days rather than her student years. In particular, she was very keen on drama while at school, and has deployed that love in her writing.
In her gap year Barber spent three months in Florence, enjoying it so much that she went back during university vacations. “It was just the most magical time”, she recalls. Mornings were spent learning Italian, the afternoons, with her best friend, “let loose in Florence or travelling around Italy.”
The deep affection she has for the area shows in the setting for Out Of Her Depth, which draws on both Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher for inspiration.
Barber’s protagonist and narrator in this book is the diffident, timorous Rachel, scooped up by the socially confident Diana, as the pair share a sort of chalet-girl alternative working in a genteelly shabby hotel near Florence. Into their orbit come the glamorous Sebastian and the local girl Valentina, a combination that becomes both poisonous — and eventually fatal.
Gleefully, Barber acknowledges that none of her characters is terribly likeable: “Diana is horrible, but Rachel is really annoying. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a fault of the book”.
She notes: “I was always interested in writing a novel set in Florence. Like so much of Italy, it has this brilliant intersection between the beautiful and the dark. I mean, Florence had its own serial killer, the Monster of Florence, who operated in the 80s. So you have that, and then these gorgeous, sun-drenched piazzas, where you just come off them and you can be plunged into the cold. I remember being told in my Italian course that the reason Florentines have a different take on personal space is because the city’s passageways are so narrow, so their perceptions are different to ours. I had that in my mind but I also wanted to write about a coming-of-age experience — the gap between wanting to be an adult and actually being so naive”.
She says food has “intrinsically” worked its way into the book, subtle though this may be. But she admits, laughing, that her mother “has always hated cooking”, and despite having a son and a daughter now in the food industry, “the day that M&S opened was the best day of her life. I remember her buying vol-au-vents… and I don’t think my father would know a frying pan if it hit him on the head”.
Now Barber — whose first book, My Name Is Anna, won the Daily Mail debut novel prize — is hard at work on her third book, this time set in Cornwall, with echoes of Daphne du Maurier. Unquestionably, there will be food involved.
Out of Her Depth by Lizzy Barber is published by Pan Macmillan