Hazel McHaffie

Big issues and compelling reads

I wonder how many of you enjoy a book that tackles one of life’s big issues. The kind that makes you ask, ‘What would I have done in that situation?‘ Not everyone does, I know. Some people tell me they’re looking for escape from life’s challenges, they don’t want their leisure hours to be troubled by injustice or suffering or tragic choices. Ergo: ‘Sorry, but I won’t be reading your novels any time soon!

But me, I like something gritty, something that makes me stop and think. Dark and difficult sucks me in. And I prefer to take my time considering my response to delicate or unexpected situations, rather than risk crashing in with hob-nailed boots. Comes from years spent walking alongside families struggling with tragedy and loss, I guess. Or maybe I’m just a slow thinker.

I’ve had another good wallow in just such a book recently – a novel.

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with author Jodi Picoult. Cons? Her formulaic style; and the way she endows all her characters with the capacity for philosophising and uttering wise insights. Pros? The readable way she deals with big questions. Having put her on one side for a long time now, I came to her latest, House Rules, with a fresher mind. And this time the subject matter eclipsed the irritating aspects, so I enjoyed it much more than the last few she’s written.

House RulesJacob Hunt is eighteen. He’s obsessed with crime, and can recite laws and forensic facts verbatim. He can’t abide the colour orange. He lives by fixed rules. He has Asperger’s. Although he’s high-functioning, he finds it impossible to make friends. But there’s one exception: a young student, Jess Ogilvy, who’s paid to teach him social skills. Jess understands him, she has time for him … until a new boyfriend starts to monopolise her time and thoughts. Jacob is not a happy bunny.

But then, Jess is found dead. The finger points at Jacob. The evidence is overwhelming.

His mother, Emma, is torn between love for her son and a desire for justice to prevail. She’s the one who calls the police. She’s the one who fights for a fair trial that accommodates Jacob’s special needs. But she’s all too conscious that the symptoms of Asperger’s – the tics, the inappropriate actions and expressions, the lack of eye-contact – can all be interpreted as evidence of guilt.

Emma’s other son, Theo, is just fourteen and harbouring his own secrets and problems. Her ex-husband, Henry, reappears unexpectedly, but now she sees warning signs in him too. Her employer reckons the mother of a murderer can’t be a suitable person to continue writing an agony column for her publication.

Throw in a novice lawyer, a sensitive police officer, and a singularly unattractive boyfriend, and you have the usual melting pot for one of Picoult’s classic protracted legal wrangles.

But what shines through this fiction is the effect of Asperger’s, not only on the person who bears the diagnosis, but also on his family, on everyone he comes into close contact with. I do personally know a number of people on the autistic spectrum and I thought I was reasonably understanding, but this book gave me much better insights into the world they inhabit – rather like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time did when that came out in 2003. Or the Dustin Hoffman film, Rain Man.

I sincerely hope this book will make a difference in real lives. And I salute Picoult for her ability to combine a gripping narrative with a big issue – a delicate balance I constantly struggle to achieve.


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6 Responses to “Big issues and compelling reads”

  • JP says:

    I have been meaning to start reading House Rules for ages now and will move it to my “current book list” on my Kindle – then I can see how much my view of it agrees with yours!

    By the way, Kailzie Gardens (near Peebles) has incredible snowdrops covering the ground, it’s close to an annual pilgrimage for us.

  • Lily R. Crawford says:

    Just finished reading House Rules and found it was one of her best so far – a real insight into a family coping with Aspergers.
    Do enjoy Jodi Picoult’s writing but find I have to have a gap in between her books – to draw breath if you see what I mean !
    Have also just read The Book Thief and think it was on your recommendation Hazel so thankyou so much for that – I found it a beautiful story .
    Love your snowdrops – they just lift the heart at this time of year !

  • JP says:

    So I just finished House Rules and it was great, much better than some of her more formulaic books (although they’re also very good in isolation, just reading one after another as I did is probably not the best way of doing it!).

    • Hazel says:

      Lovely of you to follow up on your promise, JP. Looks like House Rules is a winner all round. Let’s hope it makes us all more sensitive around people with Aspergers. I shall return to my own writing with renewed energy and the same kind of hope.

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