Hazel McHaffie

Structuring a book

As a writer myself I’m always interested in the structure of books, especially when they’re a bit whacky, so I was intrigued by one I came across recently by someone who initially went down the self-publishing route and made a go of it. As he says himself in the acknowledgements: ‘Thanks to Apple for making reliable work tools and to Amazon for turning the writing of novels back into something one can actually earn a living from’.
(NB.
He has since been taken on by traditional publishers.)

Things We Never Said is Nick Alexander‘s fourteenth work of fiction, and he has adopted an intriguing style for this one. Catherine Patrick has just died from cancer. After her death, best friend Maggie gives the grieving husband Sean a box. It contains 29 envelopes and 29 photos to be opened one a week for 29 weeks.

The envelopes contain tiny cassettes on which Catherine has dictated a message for Sean about their lives together. She warns him it will contain some information that’ll be hard to hear, and indeed he is challenged, angered, saddened and moved by what she confides, as she fills out gaps in his understanding, things they never said.

The book is constructed around these photos and taped messages.
– Waiting for each Sunday to listen to the next installment, gives the author opportunity to flesh out the present; Sean lost in grief, remembering his wife, interacting with their daughter, family, friends; making decisions for the future.
– The photos resurrect memories of significant happenings in their lives, enabling the author to unravel the events and their impact.
– Listening to the recording, exposes the emotion, the reaction, the baggage, the unsaid and the unseen behind their lives together, maintaining the tension.

All relationships have their ups and downs, all have their secrets. Loss is universal. Nick Alexander develops this reality in a way that keeps the pages turning through 29 installments, knowing there will be painful revelations, wondering how they will pan out. We feel Sean’s impotence – there can be no confrontation, no opportunity to challenge or rage or explain or put things right. Catherine has gone. Sean must resolve the issues for himself and find a way to move on. I confess I wasn’t drawn in initially, the style was too staccato, the dialogue too banal.  But as the characters were rounded out I started to care what Catherine would reveal and how Sean would deal with it. It’s a design and technique that works.

PS. There are other novels with the same title. Not sure why people do this. 

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The sad state of our NHS

A relative of mine is currently struggling with the intransigencies of a creaking NHS. I’m doing my best to find a way through that gets the patient the much-needed attention without further demoralising a team of professionals fighting fire because of impossible targets and too few resources. After all, I, more than many, appreciate both sides: I was a small cog in the healthcare machine myself for donkeys’ years, and I’ve been on the receiving end many times too. So perhaps a book by someone who buckled under the burden of working in such an environment was bound to resonate for me.

Adam Kay‘s This is Going to Hurt is absolutely brilliant. One of a family of doctors, his ‘default decision’ as a teenager was to follow in their footsteps, but nothing prepared him for the reality of life post-qualification, the life of a junior doctor.

Recording thoughts and experiences is a recommended part of ‘reflective practice’, and This is Going to Hurt is based on Adam’s diary scribbled in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends.  It’s a no-holds barred account of his time on the front line. 97-hour weeks. Life and death decisions. Ingratitude and complaint. Raw experience. Terror. Failure. Success. Innumerable objects in assorted orifices. A tsunami of bodily fluids drenching his person and his imagination. All recounted with honest brutality and a fabulous line in whacky humour.

Kay spent six years training and a further six years practising medicine, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. But eventually the price he was paying was simply too high. When something terrible happened on his watch, he finally crumbled. The patient suffered a torrential haemorrhage during a caesarean section – she had an undiagnosed placenta praevia. Dr Kay hadn’t been negligent and there was no suggestion otherwise; any other competent doctor in such circumstances would have done exactly what he did. But he expected more of himself. He was the most senior doctor involved and everyone was relying on him to sort out the horror. He felt overwhelmed by the tragedy.
I knew that if I’d been better – super-diligent, super-observant, super-something – I might have gone into that room an hour earlier. I might have noticed some subtle change on the CTG. I might have saved the baby’s life, saved the mother from permanent compromise. That ‘might-have’ was inescapable.

Much like the NHS itself, the book is filled with hope and despair, miracles and disasters, catastrophes and absurdities, intense sadness and riotous gallows humour. I defy anyone to read it without laughing out loud, or more importantly, without a sinking heart. It’s a damning indictment of a system that expects its practitioners to work impossible hours, assume phenomenal responsibility, compromise their health and relationships, for less pay than ‘the hospital parking meter earns’.

No wonder it won Book of the Year in the 2018 National Book Awards.

It’s difficult to avoid technical terms in such a book, so the author offers helpful footnotes –
I’ll help you out with the medical terminology and provide a bit of context about what each job involved. Unlike being a junior doctor, I won’t just drop you in the deep end and expect you to know exactly what you’re doing.

The footnotes themselves are often hilarious.
Diathermy is essentially a soldering iron – it heats up the area you touch it on and stops small blood vessels from bleeding by sealing them off. It is important not to clean the skin with alcohol-based antiseptic before the operation, otherwise diathermy sparks can set the patient on fire.

Swabs (used in surgery) are designed with a radio-opaque thread running through them as a marker, which shows up on X-rays as a line. A bit unimaginative – I’d have gone for a radio-opaque ‘WHOOPS!’

But I think my favourite one is:
I once put another of these standard dementia questions to a man in his nineties – ‘Spell WORLD backwards’. He paused and said, ‘As in “the planet” or “the past participle of ‘to whirl'”?’

Having spent years delivering babies myself as well as caring for the very sick and small ones, many of Kay’s obstetric stories rang bells for me personally. And I was moved by the care and empathy that this young doctor felt, that had him sneaking back to check patients were OK, or weeping for an hour when things went wrong. What a shame that this sensitivity cost him too dearly to remain on the giving end. We needs practitioners who really care.

Medicine’s loss is the entertainment industry’s gain. Adam Kay has gone on to become  an award-winning comedian and writer for TV and film. Indeed he’s actually performing in the Edinburgh Fringe this year! But his book conveys in the best way I’ve ever seen the pain and the joy of working alongside disease, despair and death. And finding the humour and words and humility to share the emotional costs. It’s already been a No 1 best-seller, attracted over 6,500 reviews on Amazon. I devoutly hope it’s on the essential reading list for the new Secretary of State/Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care/Welfare. Changes have been made since Adam Kay was practising, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

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Publication at last!

Wahey! It’s finally finally between covers and published and available. Phew! My eleventh novel.

As you know Killing Me Gently is something of a departure for me – a psychological thriller, and I have no idea if my regular readers will be pleased or nonplussed by the change. Several people have got in touch to say they’ve immediately ordered a copy because they ‘love thrillers’ … hmmm, but do they include this kind of thriller, I wonder? I’m hoping for lots of feedback – the honest variety, no holds barred, of course.

The story centres around a young career woman, Anya Morgan, who has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband. And now to complete the picture, a new baby, Gypsy Lysette  … except Gypsy hasn’t read the textbooks; she doesn’t conform to Anya’s standards of perfection.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising his marriage and his relationship with his brother.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon …

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? The social workers and the protection team are caught on the horns of a dilemma, damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t. Will they act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ve already had some lovely comments on Tom Bee’s super-special cover. That’s always a good start.

 

 

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Domestic psychological thrillers

Although I’ve read a large number of thrillers in an effort to understand the secrets and techniques that make for success, I’ve come across surprisingly few that fit more precisely into the family-based variety I’ve been trying to create myself; ‘domestic’, so-called ‘real-life’ fiction. So when I saw Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes in a supermarket second-hand charity corner at the weekend, I snapped it up. And I read it in two days.

I love the cover (her trademark style apparently), and the strap-line spoke to me: To create her family she will destroy yours. My kind of territory, huh?

And it got better and better the more I read about the book and its author. She’s dipped a toe in being a barmaid, a fruit picker, a private detective, a factory worker; she’s lived on a kibbutz, holidayed on Cornwall (my home county)… – a colourful life even before she took up crime writing. And in her novels she focuses on current issues, designed to challenge the reader to think, What if this happened to me or my family? Exactly what I try to do.

And indeed, Until You’re Mine bears some striking similarities to my own new novel, Killing me Gently, which becomes available for purchase this coming weekend*. Both are based around a young career woman, trying to adapt to being a mother; things clearly not being what they seem to be; threats hanging over families; marriages and relationships in peril.

In the case of Until You’re Mine, there are three principal women involved. Claudia Morgan-Brown has a history of numerous previous pregnancies all ending in miscarriages or still births – leaving her feeling ‘ an unworthy shell of a woman‘ and ‘a freak‘. Around perfect families with perfect babies ‘jealousy stuck in my craw like a bowlful of mud shoved down my throat.’ And yet her job – a job she loves – revolves around parents and children. As a social worker heading up a child protection team, she’s constantly dealing with dysfunctional, violent, abusive, disadvantaged families. Nor is she a stranger to the painful experience of removing children from their inadequate or unfit parents.

And it’s in the course of her work that she goes to check out the welfare of 2-month-old twin baby boys, Oscar and Noah Morgan, whose mother has just died of pancreatic cancer. They are being well cared for, but Claudia falls in love with their so-recently bereaved father, James, who reciprocates the emotion. ‘He was hurting. I was hurting. Together, we were mended.’ And now she’s heavily pregnant with James’ baby, but determined to keep working up till her due date and take the minimum of time off after the birth.

Husband, James, is a naval officer, a submariner, away for long stretches of time. And in reality Claudia knows very little of his past life. She does know, however, that he has inherited wealth from his first wife, enabling them to live in a huge and beautiful house, and that he has secrets about which she knows nothing. They decide to hire a live-in nanny to enable Claudia to keep doing what she’s good at.

Enter Zoe Harper, who comes with impeccable credentials, and is clearly really good with children. The twins adore her. We, however, know from the outset that Zoe isn’t what she appears to be. She lives in the ‘centre of an ever-changing lie’. We know she is preoccupied with pregnancy and babies. We know she’s recently left an intense relationship but still longs to make contact with her past. We also know she has her own agenda and is on a mission which somehow relates to counting down to the birth of Claudia’s child.

The third woman is Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher. She’s dealing with domestic crises at home – an errant husband and a rebellious teenage daughter determined to abandon her education and career prospects, leave home and marry her boyfriend. And on the work front Lorraine is dealing with two cases of pregnant women being sliced open and left for dead. Both the victims had troubled pasts and had been in the care of social services. Both had been wanting to terminate their pregnancies early on but for some reason had not gone through with it. Both babies and the first mother have died, but the second mother has survived, and somehow the survivor is the link between the social worker, nanny and detective.

Through the eyes of all three women we inch forward towards the critical date – the birth of Claudia’s baby girl. It’s tense, gripping stuff. But the three stories simply don’t hang together. Who is to be believed? Three women desperate to become mothers. Three women juggling competing demands. Three murders already. We’re counting down the days to deadlines with huge trepidation. The suspense keeps us glued to the pages. The killer twist in the tale, when it comes, is brilliantly executed. And the last sentence is perfection.

Phew! A serendipitous find but highly recommended. And I’ll certainly be hunting down more of Samantha Hayes’ books.

* Yep, at last! We’ve had a few glitches in the publishing process this time, hopefully now ironed out. More on this next week.

 

 

 

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Thrills, chills and perils

As you know, I’ve been studying other people’s thrillers to try to pinpoint the magic ingredients; how to maintain suspense and build tension and fulfill expectation.

Part of the secret lies in the hooks offered from the outset – as with any book, I guess, but particularly with a thriller.

So how about this for a scene setter on the first page?
People on the island village understood there was some kind of psychiatric institution on their doorstep. Only a few who worked there knew it housed a handful of the most disturbed female juvenile criminals in the Netherlands.

You just want to know what heinous crimes these girls have committed, don’t you?

Well, orphaned sisters Mia and Kim, two of the Timmers Sisters triplet singing group, from a little fishing town called Volendam in the Netherlands, have been incarcerated there for ten years, forgotten for the most part. They were just eleven years old when they were detained. Why? For killing someone.

OK, what kind of a someone? A musician called Rogier Glas, savagely hacked to death with a kitchen knife, his penis cut off and rammed down his throat. Gee whiz! Can you picture eleven-year-olds this out of control?

And now those girls are twenty-one. Beautiful. Telepathic. Obsessed by the number three.

And that’s just chapter one of David Hewson‘s Little Sister!! Yep, I’m hooked!

Add in Pieter Vos, a ramshackle senior police officer in the serious crimes squad, who lives on a shambolic houseboat on the canal with his diminutive fox terrier Sam and you’re into classic crime-writing territory.

Track back into the history … the girls’ mother, father and sister all murdered … every investigative report into the atrocity – electronic and paper copies – mysteriously shredded. And you’re feeling the chill. The girls, tested and analysed and schooled to the nth degree, and now deemed ‘sufficiently normalized’ to be released under supervision, are freed into ‘a universe without boundaries, real form or substance‘ with no experience or real knowledge of the adult world. Only to vanish. The unsuspecting member of staff designated to drive them to a halfway house, also vanishes; his car, his clothes, discovered in thickly weeded slimy water.

The blood runs cold. We’re only at page 50! And I’m staying up way past my bedtime, transfixed.

A brutally murdered body is found not far from that psychiatric institution, yet no CCTV detected anything suspicious. Another body turns up in a deserted farmhouse. Threats, disappearances, malpractice, hush money … it’s all there, dragging us further and further into the murky depths.

What exactly has been going on at the psychiatric institution? what was the dead nurse doing? where are the girls? what exactly is the last remaining member of The Cupids band afraid of? are the girls a danger to others or are they in danger themselves? – the questions get increasingly convoluted as more and more dirt is dug up. And gradually all the pieces of the macabre and disturbing picture slot into place.

The sentences are oddly constructed and staccato at times, and occasionally I got lost in the Dutch names, but it was worth persevering. and I defy anyone to preempt the truth when it finally emerges, or to better the ending.

So, the verdict? For me, it’s a successful technique. A real thriller. And I’ve learned a lot in the process of reading/analysing it. Thank you, Mr Hewson.

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NHS successes and failures

Last week I had yet another full examination by a consultant as part of my follow-up cancer care. Meticulous head to toe inspection. I’m overwhelmed by the efficiency, skill and compassion I’ve experienced at first hand in the years since I had the primary tumour removed. It could not be bettered.

And who could fail to be awed by the detailed reporting by the BBC this week of the Pakistani conjoined twins, Safa and Marwa Ullah. Two years old and recently separated.

Vast teams of top ranking practitioners working to give those two little girls as good a future as possible. The sight of the grateful mother, a widow with seven other children, kissing the hands of the surgeons said it all.

But I’ve also seen things go pear-shaped – for relatives and friends as well as those I’ve read about. And according to the media, a new publication, the NHS Resolution report, provides a worrying picture of the rise in claims for compensation. In England alone, in 2018-19,10,678 new claims were made for clinical negligence. The costs in payouts increased by £137 million to almost £2.4 billion! (NB. this includes legal costs not just the money paid to the claimants.)  Mind blowing statistics, aren’t they? Furthermore some 10% of those claims related to perceived deficiencies in maternity care but, because these are extra costly, they represent a disproportionately high percentage of the total costs.

 

 

As the CEO of the Medical Defence Union said, this amount of money could have funded over 15 million MRI scans or 112,000 liver transplants. What a sobering reality check.

I feel a mixture of emotions: regret for those people whose care has fallen short certainly but also anxiety for those whose practice is called into question as well as for the NHS as a whole. Every example of negligence exacts a toll from the patients and families concerned. But the spiralling costs of compensating dissatisfied clients affects us all. Our world renowned health care system is buckling under the strain. Something has to give.

One of my ongoing files for a possible future novel is labelled RESOURCE ISSUES. My life-long aversion/allergy to numbers has kept it low down in the pile, but it might yet become a front runner if this state of affairs continues to escalate.

 

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Patrick Branwell Brontë

Who hasn’t heard of Daphne du Maurier? Her novel Rebecca was an instant success and has never stopped selling. Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek … all classics of English literature. But du Maurier herself had her own insecurities. As she wrote to a Brontë scholar who helped her with research into the life of Patrick Branwell Brontë: ‘My novels are what is known as popular and sell very well, but I am not a critic’s favourite, indeed I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller and not reviewed at all … I have no illusions to that.’

Hey, most of us would be more than content with being recognised as a best-seller! But her works of non-fiction are certainly far less well known, so when I came across a copy of The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, I snapped it up.

A life-long fan of the novels by the Brontë sisters, du Maurier was increasingly intrigued by their feckless brother Branwell, (1817-1848), and after a visit to Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage, she set about writing what she hoped would be taken as a serious and scholarly story of his life that would rescue him from relative obscurity as she saw it, and her from dismissal as a literary lightweight.

With a history of mental ill health in both herself and her husband, Daphne came to Branwell’s life with considerable sympathy and understanding. Indeed she recognised that the genius of the three Brontë sisters owed much to the inspiration and imagination of their only brother Patrick Branwell, who was nevertheless ‘long maligned, neglected and despised‘. Branwell, she concluded, failed in life because he was unable to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fantasy. His own ‘infernal world‘ as a lonely alcohol-dependent only son and second-rate writer simply didn’t equate to the brilliance of his imagination.

Pampered, adored and spoiled as a youth following the death of his mother, subject to nerve tremors and convulsions (epilepsy in the 19th century was associated with insanity), he was considered too highly strung and overwrought to be sent to school. Accordingly he was home educated.

He was a precocious child with a photographic memory and a phenomenal capacity to learn and recollect information, coupled with an extraordinary ability to use both hands equally dexterously and write different things at the same time. He was also highly strung and excitable, with a nervous temperament, volatile, and subject to extreme mood swings. Very shortsighted and small for his age – he stopped growing at fourteen – he spent his time making up stories in microscopic writing and living in a fantasy world. His secluded and narrow upbringing coupled with the constant company of three sisters, meant that he arrived at an age of maturity with an almost childlike innocence, an immensely frustrated young adult.

Familiar with illness and death – he lost his mother and two beloved sisters before he was eight – he felt haunted and apprehensive all his life. His father’s religious views awed and terrified him and he turned his back on the strict moral code inculcated from childhood and took to keeping low company, drinking to excess, and succumbing to opium addiction (in those days opium was easily obtained and cheap). Laudanum softened the nagging voices and disappointments, coloured his drab world, and turned nightmares into delicious dreams. He joined the Freemasons at one stage, but gave them up after a time, unable to live up to their expectations, and consumed by fear that he had betrayed their secrets while inebriated.

Though a talented painter, prolific writer of poetry, plays and prose, he met with repeated failures and disappointments. No patronage was forthcoming. Crushed by the callousness of editors and writers alike, who simply failed to even acknowledge his letters or samples of his work, with no real sense of how good or bad his writing was, and sheltered from real life, he drifted from one disaster to another.

Even his short and inglorious tenure as a station-master at an insignificant branch line with the new Leeds and Manchester railway company, ended when he was dismissed for negligence, careless book-keeping, absence from duty and a strong suspicion of theft, leaving his pride severely dented: ‘He, Branwell Brontë, the brilliant versatile genius of the family, had not been able to hold down the trumpery job of station-master on a branch line.’ His own ignominy was thrown into starker relief by the industry of his sisters who were gaining both experience and knowledge, broadening their horizons, going out to work, establishing reputations, travelling, furthering their education with learned men.

Through his sister’s connections he eventually found a post as tutor to a young teenage lad, but it too ended abruptly. Something happened – something ‘bad beyond expressing‘ – when tutor and pupil were left alone, which remained unidentified. Branwell once again deadened his shame with drink. Depression overwhelmed him. Violent mood swings from despair to high elation and back followed. The convulsions increased.

Meanwhile his three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, began to find some measure of acclaim for their writing – under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – driving Branwell further and further into his world ‘walking arm-in-arm with the dark figure of MISERY‘. Amazing today to think their novels – Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Professor – were rejected by a dreary round of publishing houses, but initially that reality fed into Branwell’s conviction that it was useless for unknown writers to attempt to enter the literary world. But then, unexpected success and instant acclaim came for Jane Eyre, which quickly became the talk, not only of literary London, but amongst the whole of the country’s reading public. The identity of its author was known only to Charlotte’s sisters; Branwell, with whom she had plotted and colluded and created their ‘infernal world‘ throughout their childhood, must not be allowed into the secret, ‘for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.‘ In fact Branwell did know, but would not give them the satisfaction of knowing he did.

I agree with Justine Picardie in her introduction to the book: this biography, whilst fascinating, is rather weighed down by du Maurier’s ‘excessive diligence‘. But she has my sympathy. It must have been an impossible task to sift the truth from the writings of such a dissolute and deluded mind; and apparently she found the good people of Howarth very reluctant to talk about the facts of the past. So I for one will applaud her for her serious efforts, but turn back to her novels as testament to her own brilliance.

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Mr Dickens and his Carol

You may well have seen reviews of a new book just published under the title, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain. It tells the story of publisher Edward Lloyd, (1815-1890) who ‘helped shape Victorian popular culture in ways that have left a legacy that lasts right up to today. He was a major pioneer of both popular fiction and journalism but has never received extended scholarly investigation until now.’ But the book will most likely catch your attention because of its references to Charles Dickens. For he was one of the victims of the opportunist publishers, playwrights, journalists, who cashed in on other people’s success by producing parodies of their novels. Dickens himself was outraged by these plagiarists but powerless to prevent them – this being the age before the Copyright Act of 1842.

It nicely resonated with me because I’ve just finished reading a lovely book on the same subject and era: Mr Dickens and his Carol by Samantha Silva, which might not be ‘scholarly’ but the basic premises are all there. Dickens losing popularity … his impotent rage at the charlatans who steal his ideas … his publishers needing a success .. money problems … a feckless father … a growing brood of children … Messrs Chapman and Hall suggesting a short Christmas story … ‘hardly a book at all‘ … mayhap including a ghost or two? So, though her story is a work of fiction, Silva has built upon the work of Dickens’ biographers as well as his own words, to create a playful but plausible and enjoyable re-imagining of how one of the best loved classics came into being. She herself recognises that Dickens aficiandos and scholars might well bristle at the liberties she takes, but she writes from a position of both admiration and affection for the man, keenly aware that a ‘good biography tells us the truth about a person; a good story, the truth about ourselves.’ Well said!

Silva’s physical book has a beautiful look and feel – velvety smooth cover (hardback), the kind of volume you hold with reverential gentle hands and stroke with sensual pleasure. It’s her debut work, published in 2017, but her writing is assured and the story beautifully realised, capturing the evergreen heart and style of Dickens’ own tales.

It’s described as a ‘fan letter‘, even a ‘love letter‘, to the ‘Inimitable Boz‘, that says ‘I know you were a flawed man who had a heart as big as the world. That you saw Christmas as a time to reconnect with our humanity and revel in even our smallest blessings. And that you lived with so much darkness, inside and out, but leant – urgently and frantically – always towards the light.’

As we know, Dickens’ Christmas novel was heralded as a ‘national benefit‘, a ‘personal kindness’ to everyone who reads it. Indeed Dickens is revered for his capacity to portray understanding and empathy for one’s fellow-man, and to highlight the human capacity to rise above adversity and sorrow. ‘Despite what is cold and dark in the world, perhaps it is a loving place after all.’ Not only was he writing at a time and in a place where squalor, poverty, injustice, inhumanity, and disease prevailed, but he personally knew abandonment, poverty, disloyalty and hardship. As a small boy, when his father and the rest of the family were admitted to the debtors’ prison, Charles was left to fend for himself. His father was feckless all his life and a perpetual drain on Charles’ resources. We so often glean a romanticised view of the period in films and dramatic reconstructions, but the written word reminds us of the horrors and humiliations of his time.

And so in Mr Dickens and his Carol we follow Dickens as he tramps the gritty fog-filled streets in search of inspiration; as he rails against the constant racket of a busy household with six children and an extravagant wife and an endless stream of people demanding money. How he managed to write at all in such conditions escapes me! But here he is, filled with foreboding lest he be unable to afford toys for each of his children at Christmas, give his usual contributions to worthy charities, and stay out of the poorhouse. Nor is his fame assured and protected. Martin Chuzzlewit has flopped; acting troupes are plagiarising his work; his relatives trading his possessions for cash, his publishers tightening the screws.

Under intolerable pressure, temper, patience and good humour desert him. His wife leaves him just before Christmas taking the children to Scotland until he can be more reasonable. He takes refuge under a pseudonym in lowly accommodation, sleep and appetite and mental clarity all forfeit. Melancholy swallows him up.

‘Like any man, he’d known a good share of knocks in his thirty-some years. Hard knocks at lesser doors, insistent rap-rap-raps on wind-bitten, rain-battered doors whose nails had lost all hope of holding. And with fame came gentler taps at better doors, pompous, pillared, and crowned thresholds in glazed indigo paint, like his own door two floors below, where the now-polite pounding was having no effect at all.
Because there are times in a man’s life when no knock on any door will divert him from doing the thing at hand, in particular when that thing is a goose-feather pen flying across the page, spitting ink.’

So, there he is, finally, sleep deprived and physically drained, but re-energised, as he pours all his disappointment and anger and resentment and agony into his writing, creating and fleshing out Scrooge and Fezziwig and Cratchit and Marley. Haunted in his own mind, he revels in the introduction of fictitious ghosts as he reviews life, past, present and future, his own personal hauntress encouraging him to capitalise on experience: ‘Let the spectre of your memory be the spark of your imagination.’ And gradually, gradually, the all-consuming power of writing cures him of his jaded perspective, and he discovers that his mental museum is still ‘where he left it, the corridors stacked high, shelves overflowing.’

Having recently finished writing my own latest novel I very much related to Dickens’ relief when The Christmas Carol was finished.
Dickens laid down his pen. There was a frisson in finishing, a great rush of feeling for the life of his characters, all the Crachits and Fezziwigs, Fred and his wife, and Scrooge most of all. He didn’t want to say goodbye; he wanted to keep them close, where he might watch over them. But he knew that the end of his book was a beginning of their life without him, and he must let them be born into the world, and welcomed, as he felt sure they would be. Still how grateful he was to have known them at all.’

It’s a heart-warming story, well told. And I can’t resist sharing a few gems of Silva’s writing:
John Dickens:  ‘his whole face was a ruin’
Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison: ‘a prison of perpetuity, a forever place of no release’
Dickens’ mood: ‘melancholy is the mother of invention’

Highly recommended.

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Is it ever right to take a life?

With all the events marking 75 years since D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, and other war-related events, my mind has been travelling the well-worn path of … is it ever justifiable to take a life? And is there a kind of life that’s worse than death?

Then for the last two Thursdays those questions have swirled again, watching Susanna Reid interviewing inmates awaiting execution in maximum security prisons in the USA for her series: Death Row: Countdown to Execution. The state of Texas supports the death penalty, and the locals appear to take it in their stride, but Susanna found it unsettling just being in the town with the execution chamber, to know exactly when a human being was being walked to that gurney, strapped down, given that lethal shot of Pentobarbital. She wanted to know exactly what was happening, how everyone felt – the convicted man, the family, the witnesses, the townspeople. She’d met these men briefly in the last few days of their lives, and in spite of their criminal backgrounds, it clearly troubled her.

Many inmates are held on Death Row for decades (the average 12 years) and massive amounts of money are spent on appeals even up to the eleventh hour. Fewer than 2% are exonerated but the process has to be gone through, seeking additional years or days of life if nothing else. For those who are the victims of the crimes (and that often includes the family of the convicted man) the death brings a form of closure; but opponents believe that society should not sink to their level. After all, as they said, we don’t rape rapists, we don’t steal from burglars; why should we kill murderers? ‘We should be better than that.

And against all this my mind goes to my own area of particular interest, viz the issues around assisted death for people on a different kind of trajectory: those with incurable, degenerative illnesses; trapped for years in many cases, with no hope of a reprieve. Their own kind of death row; their own kind of hell. And our society – too humane to kill convicts – is also unwilling to countenance patients ending their own lives when the pain, the suffering, the indignity, are intolerable. Is this justice? Is this fair? Is it humane? As Scottish former Rugby Union player Doddie Weir (who has Motor Neuron Disease himself and has just buried his mother after a fairly short experience of cancer) said this week: Being a farming boy, when there is no hope with the animals you are able to put them out of their misery, but with humans it is not allowed. It does not seem fair sometimes.

So many truly difficult questions; so many nuances and valid perspectives. I studied this topic in depth before writing Right to Die, published in 2008. I’ve repeatedly returned to it since. Eleven years on we’re no further forward in terms of the law. Assisted suicide is still illegal; doctors who help a person to die still face a jail sentence of up to 14 years. However, public opinion has swung much more towards some provision to help people caught up in these intolerable situations, helped in no small measure by the brave souls who have shared their harrowing experiences openly. Then in March this year, the Royal College of Physicians declared neutrality on the subject. And this week the Royal College of General Practitioners has said it will consult its 53,000 members on whether the time has come to drop their opposition to assisted dying. The wheels grind oh so slowly, but they do seem to be turning.

What do you think?

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The Other Hand

How about this for the blurb on the back cover of a book?
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there …

Brave publisher, huh? Trusting author.

Well, I did buy The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, on the strength of this intriguing sales pitch. I was hoovering up books in Scotland’s National Book town, after all! And wow! it is indeed a special story. It was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA Novel Award and has attracted terrific reviews: ‘a feat of literary engineering’,  ‘a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency’, ‘profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop’. All richly deserved.

I can’t reveal the plot to you because the instruction from the publisher is specific:
Once you’ve read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

And ‘unfolds’ is the right world. The past and present are seamlessly woven together, each action having an influence which ripples out to create a reaction, which in turn has new consequences. Masterly plotting. And the writing is wonderful, the voices and dialogues pitch-perfect. Somehow the author manages to juxtapose gut-wrenching horror and laugh-out-loud humour without compromising either. I’ve no idea how he does it. From the first line: Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl‘ to the closing Nigerian proverb: If your face is swollen from the severe beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man, this book will hold you in a vice-like grip at once shocking and deeply affecting but also entertaining.

Star of the show is the character who pens the above first sentence: Little Bee, a 16-year-old orphaned Nigerian refugee with impeccable Queen’s English. Indeed she often likens herself to ‘Queen Elizabeth the Second of England’. She and her story will haunt you for days after you’ve read her final words. And we all need to wake up to stories like hers.

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