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What a book with two titles reveals about the way we read

Elisabeth de Mariaffi's new book is being sold under different names in Britain and Canada. The reason why lies in fear, feminism and who we choose to believe

What do these two books have in common?

One cover shows ripples of water with a terrifying hint of something, or someone, submerged. The title, Hysteria, draws on the once common medical diagnosis given to women. The other cover, for a book called I Remember You, has yellow shoes that evoke Hemingway's six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Except worse, these yellow shoes are worn. Where is the baby?

This is where the differences end. Open each cover and you will only find similarities: They are the same book.

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Hysteria, by the Canadian author Elisabeth de Mariaffi, is published by HarperCollins Canada and I Remember You, also by Elisabeth de Mariaffi, comes out with Titan Books in Britain. While publishers in different countries do redesign covers, a completely new title and marketing campaign in the same language is more rare. Why go through the effort at all? A closer look at the story within reveals an answer that lies in fear, feminism and who we choose to believe.

Hysteria, or I Remember You, tells the story of Heike Lerner, a woman who fled Dresden, Germany during the Second World War. In the 1950s, she comes to live in New York's Finger Lakes region with her husband and young son, a life complete with canoes, clinking glass and charming conversations. But strange things start to happen. A young girl appears like an apparition and Heike's husband's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Or does it? Heike questions her own sanity. When her son vanishes, her husband's cold calm shakes her trust. Her struggle to find her child becomes a question of perception. It's her word against her husband's.

A novel is like a question – what happens when…? Titan Books is focusing on what happen when a child goes missing. "There is nothing more terrifying than the loss of a child!" publisher Miranda Jewess says. Meanwhile, HarperCollins Canada publisher Iris Tupholme says, "Our focus in positioning the book is less on the missing child, though that is a key part of the story, and more on the tension and mystery for Heike."

The book was originally titled I Remember You when it was sold to the publishers. But when de Mariaffi brought forward Hysteria as an alternative, Tupholme loved it because it "suggests the book's complexity … the story's focus on women." Jewess also considered the new title, but thought Hysteria "sounded like a more gritty action thriller."

Canadian author Elisabeth de Mariaffi.

Both covers do tap into deep-seated fear. But the different focus of those fears may speak more to a transatlantic literary divide, says Kate Pullinger, a Canadian novelist in Britain and professor of creative writing and digital media at Bath Spa University. She sees the two covers as responding to each market for fiction.

"In Canada, the popular writer can remain literary," but in Britain, though there are exceptions, Pullinger says "literary fiction is increasingly devalued and invisible in the marketplace." In her view, the British cover is trying to connect to the commercial market; it ties into the tabloid newspaper culture that screams for attention. "Scary Sad Crime Happened Here!"

Market context matters when considering that the title and cover give a first impression of how a story will deliver. A reader will see it in the light of personal preference and experience. The response to fear, of missing women and missing children, may play out differently in Canada and Britain, though it is impossible to precisely compare. However, horror stories have a long history of pushing our deepest fears into the light. The best of them – Jordon Peele's film Get Out is a recent example – help us see those fears more clearly.

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Hysteria captures this moment in time. The story is psychological suspense, a kind of thriller that put more emphasis on the mental, rather than physical, danger to the characters, like the bestsellers Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. These novels often read like a fictional counterpart to the #MeToo movement and the true stories of abuses of power, such as the many allegations since those against Harvey Weinstein, that have recently come to light. All circle around the same question – what happens when it's your word against mine?

The term hysteria comes from the Greek word hysterika, meaning uterus. Women who were diagnosed with the now debunked condition were sometimes subject to the removal of the offending female parts, or a hysterectomy. When Heike asks questions in Hysteria, her husband medicates her mind with tonics rather than answer. Their child goes missing and he diverts any blame to her: "Now look what you've done." The other title, I Remember You, shifts the focus onto the outcome of what happened. A child went missing and Heike was the primary caregiver. There is a kind of implicit verdict in the yellow shoes: Now look what you've done.

An author often has input into a cover, but rarely final say. What themes did Elisabeth de Mariaffi intend to explore with her writing? Her interest lies in the gap between the reality we experience and what we are told to believe. Specifically, she says, women are taught about fear from an early age, that "we shouldn't walk in the dark or talk to strangers or live alone."

But women are also questioned for having so much fear. "Every time someone actually does step forward to say she's been assaulted, she's shouted down as a liar."

Novels of psychological suspense revolve around the search for a truth, something that is often elusive and, as we've seen with the unmasking of serial predators in the wake of the #MeToo movement, more embedded in power than we have previously cared to admit. To de Mariaffi, the first layer of fear in this novel is the lost child. But it is more deeply about a woman "who can't get anyone to listen to her or believe her. That's really about powerlessness, and it's terrifying."

And that might be why, says de Mariaffi, so many women read psychological suspense, because it's comforting to read a story from a woman's point of view. Especially one that shows "our fears are well and truly grounded after all."

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What happens when it's your word against mine? The cover of a book might say something about who we choose to believe.

Claire Cameron is the author of The Last Neanderthal.

More from Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Why rural Ontario is Gord Downie country

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