Hazel McHaffie

Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl is one of those much-hyped books that hit the headlines big time. OK, OK, I know, I know!  I’m way behind the curve here; it did indeed come out in 2012 and I did buy my hardback copy ages ago, but I’ve only just got around to reading it this week. It’s attracted thousands of reviews (with its fair share of negative ones it must be admitted), won prestigious awards, and was dubbed ‘thriller of the year’. In my case I selected it now to serve a dual purpose: to psych myself gradually back into work mode after a couple of weeks of family priorities; and to hopefully counteract a recent run of disappointing reads.

So what did I make of it? Well, I can quite see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but my agenda as a writer is probably atypical, and I found it gripping.

The book is divided into three parts, each one combining all the ingredients of a psychological thriller with the intense dissection of a marriage, each one taking us deeper and further into the conundrum of a relationship and the dark capabilities of the human mind. It’s ingeniously constructed, smoothly paced, with unreliable narrators providing contradictions and plot twists to keep the reader guessing right to the end. Nothing is as it seems.

It begins well with two very distinctive narrator voices – Nick Dunne (American magazine writer until computers took over the world and the economy went down the plughole) and his wife Amy (writer of personality quizzes and reluctant model for a series of books about Amazing Amy). One paragraph in each voice to give a flavour:

Nick: My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shuffling and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward a finale, a cakepan drum rolling along the floor, hitting the wall with a cymballic crash. Something impressive was being created, probably a crepe, because crepes are special, and today Amy would want to cook something special.
It was our five-year anniversary.

 Amy: Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!
But I did. This is a technical, empirical truth. I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.

She is the woman that every American girl (allegedly) aspires to be – beautiful, brilliant, inspiring, and very wealthy. He is the guy that all American men (allegedly) admire – handsome, funny, bright and charming. But on 5 July, their seemingly perfect world comes crashing down when Amy Elliott Dunne disappears, leaving behind a scene of overturned furniture and hastily mopped up blood, the iron still switched on, a half-pressed dress still on the board. It’s their fifth wedding anniversary.

They’ve had their problems: redundancy, ill parents, financial reversals, but Nick is appalled and bewildered (allegedly) when evidence mounts against him, clear motives are identified, and he becomes chief suspect in Amy’s supposed murder. Every year on their anniversary Amy has prepared a treasure hunt reflecting their in-jokes and secret knowledge of each other; this year the clues seem weighted in a sinister and damning way. The police, the press, friends, family, neighbours watch mesmerized as the Dunne’s seemingly charmed lives unravel to reveal a very different reality.

Any author skilled enough to hold all those timelines and lies and plot twists together and unpack a story as deviously compelling as this, deserves enormous admiration. I was constantly checking and double checking and worrying about links far less complicated than this in my own books, so it was no surprise to read that Gillian Flynn had pieces of paper and index cards taped all over the walls of her office as she wrote Gone Girl, and by the time she’d finished the room ‘looked like the lair of a serial killer‘ with ‘crazy words and questions fluttering from every surface‘. The end result is so tight and assured and beautifully dovetailed because of this meticulous attention to detail and thorough cross-checking. Top marks there.

Gone Girl DVDI rarely watch films of books I’ve read – they never match with my imagined characters and places, and usually miss out vital components, but in this case I made an exception. Given the complexity of the story, surely no film could do justice to the printed version, all the unreliable elements, all the deceptions. But it can and it does*. Perhaps that’s in no small measure a tribute to the author who herself contributed to the screenplay. Her parents were both community-college professors – her mother teaching reading; her father, film, and according to her website Gillian ‘spent an inordinate amount of her youth nosing through books and watching movies‘. That could explain a lot. Whatever, Gillian Flynn certainly has an amazing talent; she’s indisputably a master of ‘dark and nasty‘!

I am now absorbed in the tactic of unreliable narrator …

*NB. The filmmakers need to take lessons in the properties of blood! The scenes involving copious amounts of it are entirely unconvincing.

 

 

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Literary fiction: profound or sleep-inducing?

An essential part of a writer’s life is reading. Reading voraciously. Reading widely. Reading critically. Reading. Reading. Reading.

OK. No problem there. I love reading. I read every single day. My shelves are permanently stacked with books. And I owe my career to the authors whose books I’ve devoured. But some are indisputably more daunting than others, and so-called literary fiction is one category that I have to approach with determination; as regular visitors to my blog know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. But maybe I should rapidly mend my ways.

Researchers at Stanford University found that fiction helps readers to empathise more with other people, and the deeper the book delves into the characters the more the reader ‘walks in their shoes.’ So it’s official! Just as we always knew. Reading not only broadens the mind but it makes one a more empathetic human being. Well, but hang on a minute … maybe the conclusion rings true, but see here as to whether or not this claim can really be justified from this particular study.

But I digress. I do actually make concerted efforts periodically to try to get a handle on what’s acknowledged by the literati as meritorious writing. And the summer time seemed like a good time to soak up some healthy rays and dig into an acknowledged high quality piece of writing.

The Photograph

So that’s why Penelope Lively‘s work came under my microscope. Now in her eighties, Lively has yards of prestigious awards to her credit, including the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books. An OBE, CBE and DBE track her recognition from 1989 till she was made a Dame in 2012. So she’s indisputably masterclass level, right? Sit at her feet and learn.

What then of her 2003 novel, The Photograph? It opens with the discovery of an envelope buried in a mountain of papers in a cupboard in widower Glyn’s house. Lightly pencilled on it is an instruction in the unmistakable hand of his deceased wife, Kath: DON’T OPEN – DESTROY. Compelled by curiosity however, he ignores the instruction and finds a photograph of Kath holding hands with another man. And not just any other man; a man whom Glyn knows very well. Glyn becomes obsessed by this revelation and one by one he drags others into his relentless and reckless search for the truth about the wife he thought he knew.

Sounds like a fair enough plot, yes? It was attractive enough to make me buy the book anyway.

But as with most literary fiction the pace is very … very … slow. The characters are revealed very … very … slowly with attention to tiny… tiny … details. What’s more the revelation when it comes is hardly earth-shattering; I guessed from early on how Kath died (not revealed until P208 of 236) and what troubled her. So what kept me reading? Sheer obstinacy – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Plus an appreciation of the mastery of the author’s language. Undisputed. A couple of examples will suffice:

No people here; the insect-crawl of cars. Glyn’s house is lost now, digested into the urban mass, a tiny box in a row of similar boxes. And the mass itself, the inscrutable complex muddle, bleeds away at its edges, getting sparser and sparser until it is lapped entirely by space. Or rather, by spaces – squares and triangles and rectangles ad oblongs and distorted versions of such shapes, edged sometimes with dark ridges. Dark spongy masses, long pale lines slicing away into the distance. Here and there a miniature version of the city density, a little concentration of energy at the confluence of lines. And then eventually space gives way – there’s a spillage, seepage, a burgeoning unrest that condenses once more into city format: the enigmatic fusion of now and then, everything happening at once.’

Aged 4, Kath is ‘a local distraction on the fringes of my [her 10-year old sister’s] vision.

And then there’s the resonance with the essential truths about people which Lively recognises:

Behaviour that is engaging in someone of twenty-five becomes less so at forty, let alone at fifty-eight. Where once she was beguiled, she has for many years been exasperated, though exasperated in the tempered, low-key way of long-standing acceptance.’  … ‘He remained in a time-warp of feckless adolescence.

She is fragmented now. The dead don’t go; they just slip into other people’s heads.’

‘The world smiles on the physically attractive …’

So, a classic example of literary fiction? A work of literary merit that offers deliberate social commentary or political criticism? Or one which focuses in some profound or moving way on the individual in order to explore some part of the human condition? Yee…esss. Or, if you’re a closet-philistine, a work as dull and pointless as reading the dictionary because nothing exciting happens? Which camp do you fall into, I wonder?

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The macabre and the make-believe

Buckingham PalaceLast week we took our youngest grandchildren to London.

Tower BridgeAs you do, we soaked up the usual history and took lots of photos of the famous sites and spun a few yarns to bring the past alive, but a couple of the attractions on our list turned out to be far too scary for them to even try. Fair enough; no pressure. I was a ridiculously fearful child myself with far too vivid an imagination that got me into a lot of trouble, so I sympathise.

But their reaction made me think about tolerance levels and the power of the imagination. Which led me to the extraordinary talent some writers have for sucking you in to a horrifying or disturbing world. It’s just words on a page, isn’t it? A mere 26 letters strung together in various combinations. Make-believe. But put together in just this way those words can blot out reality, take over your emotions, keep you on the edge of your seat dreading what’s coming but compelled to read on. That’s clever. That’s power.

So in this frame of mind my eye was caught by reviews such as ‘the go-to queen of contemporary brain-twisting crime‘; ‘the twistiest plots known to woman’, ‘everyday tales of warped psychology’. Intriguing. And who is this queen of twists?  Sophie Hannah, that’s who. OK. Heard of her, not read any of her work. But I appreciate good plotting; I’m fascinated by psychology; I’ll give her a go. Broaden my horizons.

I chose a recent one: A Game for all the Family – billed as her ‘first standalone psychological thriller‘ on her website.

Justine Merrison has escaped from the rat-race of life in London (I’ve just been there so have an up to date sense of the pace and pressure of the metropolis) to an idyllic home in Devon (my neck of the woods so I know all about the very different pace of life and the picture postcard scenery).

Cottage in Devon

Appropriate choice so far.

Justine plans to spend her days ‘doing Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing’, so she cuts off all connection to her old life as a stressed TV executive. But before long her teenage daughter, Ella, becomes withdrawn and miserable. She eventually confides that her ‘best friend in the whole world‘, George, has been expelled from school for stealing her coat, a coat which she gave him as a gift. Incensed by the injustice, Justine puts pressure on the headmistress to reconsider her decision, only to be told that there is not, and never was, a George in their school. So far so good. I’m hooked.

Then Justine sees a creative writing essay Ella has written and she knows at once this is no innocent teenage make-believe. Here is a darkly disturbed mind spinning a macabre tale of a dysfunctional family spiralling out of control. Where has this information come from? And how does it link to the mysterious George for whom she’s pining? Before long, anonymous calls start … then threats … then sinister events. Graves are dug. Justine is caught up in a whirl of frightening happenings, which are wilder than any drama she ever worked on in her former life. Just where do the boundaries of truth lie? And how can she protect her family from the forces gathering against them?

I was sufficiently curious to keep turning the pages, but I have to confess the ending disappointed. Why? Because I was looking for something less obvious given the build up. Because the ‘bad guy’ was always ‘the bad guy’. Because the psychology seemed suspect to me. Because it left me disappointed.

So no more Hannah novels for me then … Ahhh, now there’s the moral of the tale. How unfair of me. She’s an internationally famous, best-selling writer with a string of awards under her belt; she must be doing something right. Even this book has been well reviewed by some critics. And yet I’ve judged her on a first taste. I’d hate it if someone did that to me, so it’s only fair that, at some point, I give her a second chance.

I am resolved.

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66 letters – lest we forget

I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?

When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)

And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:

It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)

You can lose yourself in another time.

So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.

And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.

If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.

Used under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike License

Thiepval Memorial (Used under Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike License)

A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.

Nevard-panelHis name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.

His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.

 

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Now you see me … now you don’t

Well, I bet you never expected to see a post about sport on my blog, did you? Me neither. But here I am about to dip a toe into this rather alien world.

Marcus Willis

Click on the picture for the winning moment

Actually, to be fair, Wimbledon does hold some appeal every year; tennis being one of the few games I have any interest in. And here it is in full swing once more.

You’ve probably all heard that this week’s sensation was Britain’s Marcus Willis ranked 772 in the world, who beat Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis (ranked 54th) in straight sets in the first round on Monday with some spectacular play. Well, it so happens that I’ve known Marcus’ family all my life; his great-grandfather was one of the loveliest men I ever met and my childhood hero. So, of course, I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the Willis-sensation and all the coverage he’s received.

His own story reads like a fairytale – complete with the beautiful princess who believes in him and rescues him from himself! But what struck me most is how unequal the effort and the recognition are. This young man has been struggling below the radar for years and years, pursuing his dream, earning peanuts, unknown, unsung. He’s on the verge of throwing in the towel … he’s persuaded to give it one more shot. A series of improbable chances propels him into the first round of Wimbledon. He excels. And lo and behold, here he is, suddenly shooting out of obscurity into the blinding flash of publicity; his name, his face, his story, everywhere! Front page headlines. And what’s more, achieving something that will go down in tennis history. Fantastic. A mere two days later he’s on Centre Court playing against no less a person than Roger Federer, ranked third in the world and winner of 17 grand slams, before a crowd of 15,000 spectators, and I am watching the cameras home in on his family in the players’ box. Not surprisingly he was beaten this time. We all felt his disappointment, but he can hold his head high. And no one can take away that phenomenal experience.

I could also see certain parallels with writing – although the literary stage tends to be much less high profile than the sporting one. A whole lot of solitary slog, unseen and unsung. Massive self-discipline. Plenty of self-doubt. Lots of criticism. Constant pressure to do better. Uncertain rewards. Occasional appearances performing to others. And for a tiny elite, accolades.

As the Editor of The Author says in the latest edition: ‘…we endure long periods of solitude punctuated by episodes of startling exposure. Like shy children obliged to sing in assembly, we are thrust forward for sudden public judgement – and it is not just our professional personalities that are up there on the podium but our innermost intellectual and emotional selves. Our everyday creative existence, meanwhile, is dependent on piercing self-criticism and inflated self-belief – not a stable combination … Success can seem arbitrary. Rewards are rarely anticipated. Our control of our professional futures, by and large, is scanty.’

How true. I’ve come out of ‘isolation’ recently to do public events about Inside of Me. After all those months behind closed doors, researching, thinking, creating, plotting, writing, doubting, editing, refining, suddenly it’s time to blink in the headlights. Sign books. Hold an audience. Be challenged to explain, reveal, unravel – there’s no hiding when you’re the only person in the firing line. And suddenly all that careful preparation makes sense.

Sadly justice is not always served in this life. There are countless sportspeople and writers and others who never receive the acclaim they deserve.  But here’s to all those decent, kind, caring people who slog away unseen, without reward, but who make this world a better place to live in by their efforts. Marcus’ smile and good humour will live on alongside his score.

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Countdown

What a week. The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox; Tim Peake‘s return to earth after six months in space; an historic referendum on the UK’s position in Europe; … I’ve counted down to my own author-event at Blackwell’s Bookshop this evening, not just in days-to-the-referendum, but in significant news flashes. And I want to pay my own small tribute to Jo Cox and her family who have epitomised dignity, humanity, unity and compassion. If only her legacy could continue to overrule the vitriol and power-struggling and falsehoods which have characterised this campaign.

So, tonight we launch my latest novel, Inside of Me, into the bigger world, courtesy of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh.

Stash of Inside of Me

I always knew it would be hard to do justice to this one without giving away a surprise but significant element which is only revealed at the end. So I had to explore various angles which might ‘sell’ the book to a live audience without containing spoilers. On this occasion I decided to concentrate on two points: body image and disappearance.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of people go through life perfectly content with their own body image; I’m certainly not among their number. All manner of hang-ups, me. All my life. And sobering statistics for suicide, mental health, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions and addictions, cosmetic procedures, gender changes, all bear testament to a wider societal dissatisfaction. Small wonder, fueled as we are by the messages, overt and subliminal, from magazines and the internet; from social media; peer pressures; completely unrealistic expectations and cultural ideals. My book fits into this context, exploring what it means to live with unhappiness and troubled thoughts and unachievable goals.

One example will suffice: 15-year-old India Grayson looks in the mirror and perceives a size 3 body as grossly overweight. She aspires to have the courage to binge eat and deliberately vomit. Her mother can only stand on the sidelines, powerless to prevent her beloved daughter, on the very cusp of adulthood, starving herself to the point of collapse, forced to wait for medical intervention until the teenager is at death’s door or at imminent risk of significant deterioration. But India’s not seeking death; she’s seeking control. So how far should she be allowed to go along the path to self-destruction? What right has her mother to intervene?

Disappearance is the second recurring theme I chose to speak about. Three teenage girls vanish one after another. So does India’s beloved dad, leaving a neatly folded pile of clothes on a windy beach. Are these events connected? India’s mother has her niggling suspicions, doubts and fears but she’s suppressed them and certainly hasn’t shared them with a single soul. But now, eight years after his supposed suicide, India is convinced she heard her father’s voice on a crowded London station. She has to find him. The truth when it emerges is not what anyone expected; it challenges their notions of family and relationships, of image and identity. It makes us wonder, to what extent is it right to pursue our own goals and ambitions, when they conflict with the interests of others?

A-Lot-Like-EveAs part of my thinking about body image, I’ve been reading A Lot like Eve by Joanna Jepson. A newly ordained curate, Jepson came to fame in the early 2000s when she challenged the courts over cases of abortion for nothing more disabling than a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember her well – and her arguments. She was uniquely qualified to adopt this cause having herself been the victim of bullying and humiliation because of a facial disfigurement, and having also witnessed reaction to her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. What I didn’t know is how she has struggled with her faith and calling. This book is a moving exploration of her own battle to find acceptance and peace in her personal as well as her religious life.  And who else would see their calling to be chaplain to the fashion industry?

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Out of Africa

Before the KnifeFor those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.

It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.

Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.

‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.

But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’

The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.

In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.

‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’

Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.

And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.

(c)

Shutterstock image

When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.

‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’

We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.

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Ethical issues for everyone

I’ve been taking stock of where I am in my writing career of late and I thought I’d share with you a couple of noteworthy things from this appraisal.

The first relates to the prevalence of my subject matter.

To one side of my desk I have three large boxes full of folders. Each file contains material related to topics I’m interested in; each one a potential novel. (Yep, you’ve got the picture. I’m obsessive. Nothing newsworthy there.) But some of these files are very thick; one topic even runs to two volumes. And reviewing the contents, I’m reminded of how often I cut things out of the daily papers to slip into the said folders. Deduction? My kind of subjects must help sell newspapers; ordinary people must be interested in them.

Alert to this, I did a mini survey. Result? Just on one day this week there was something on
– mental illness (OCD and depression and self harming all dealt with)
– organ transplantation (growing human organs inside other mammals)
– assisted suicide (the BMA’s position: should doctors to be free to follow their consciences?)
– body image and identity (eating disorders, celebrities’ experiences)
– balance of risks and benefits (related to heart disease)
– care of the elderly and those with dementia
All on just one day in one newspaper.

Right to DieThe second point relates to the currency of my subject matter.

When I start planning a new book, I do try to imagine life a bit ahead of present understanding so that when it comes out it’s still relevant and topical, but I’ve been surprised at how much these issues remain current. Take assisted dying, for instance. My novel, Right to Die, was published in 2008. In the eight years since then parliament has revisited the issue repeatedly; professional bodies have regularly debated the pros and cons; a considerable number of high profile cases have come to public attention; campaigns have been fought. It’s still a hot potato and it doesn’t show any sign of cooling any time soon.

Remember-RememberThen there’s dementia. Remember Remember came out in 2010, but the ethical dilemmas it explores are as thorny today as they were then. What’s more, the number of families grappling with them is growing as the human lifespan increases; more and more individuals are exercised by the questions.

I’ve been working on an outline for the tenth and eleventh books recently and I’m staggered by the thickness of the folders on those two topics. I’m having to write notes of notes, and lists of lists, to sort out the wealth of facts and the evolution of thinking and knowledge, in order to establish what arguments and counter-arguments obtain today, and to start developing a coherent plot-line. When I first set out on my pathway to becoming a novelist, a very highly regarded agent advised me to leave my academic background behind me. I knew what he meant: the meticulous research mustn’t show through in the finished product. However, from my point of view, those decades as an university researcher stand me in good stead when it comes to delving deep, sifting and sorting facts, and understanding science.

Of course, I’m well aware that at some point I shall have to put away my writing pen, my days as an author done. But it certainly won’t be because I’ve run out of subject matter! Medical ethics is very much alive and thriving.

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Eugenics: fact and fiction

QuestioningYou’ve probably already heard of the American Eugenics Sterilization Program, in operation in the late 19th, early 20th century. If not … a quick résumé by way of context for today’s post.

The ‘program’ was designed to preserve and improve the strongest and ‘best’ within the society, and it did so by preventing the birth of babies to men and women with mental and social problems: the ‘mentally defective‘, ‘morons‘, the ‘feeble-minded‘, those with epilepsy, families on ‘welfare‘ – the very language makes us cringe today, doesn’t it?  But sterilizing these unfortunate citizens was considered to be in the ‘public good‘. It was later judged – rightly – as a terrible violation of human rights, but it’s only in the last few years that any sense of justice or compensation has been offered.

Most states stopped this practice after World War II, uncomfortable with the comparison with the Nazi eugenic experiments in Germany, about which much more is known, but North Carolina continued, and is said to have carried out as many as 7600 such operations between 1929 and 1975. North Carolina was also the only state to give social workers the power to petition for the operation for specific individuals; elsewhere it was limited to those already in institutions.

It’s against this shameful period of American history that Diane Chamberlain Necessary Liessets her novel, Necessary Lies. As a former social worker herself, she’s probably got a certain edge when it comes to writing on this subject; she beautifully captures the ambivalence some professionals felt in determining what was in the best interests of their clients at a time when few choices existed; punitive views relating to sexual behaviour were prevalent; little was known about genetic inheritance; racial intolerance was rife; and class distinctions were very much the norm.

Jane Forrester is a young idealistic woman, newly married to a doctor, Robert, who disapproves of wives working. Jane unilaterally decides to postpone having children herself in order to become a social worker and help vulnerable families. When she encounters the Harts – two teenage girls, an illegitimate son, and an ageing grandmother – living in abject poverty, she simply cannot stand by while their rights are abused by well-meaning professionals. Before long she’s in deep trouble with her husband, her colleagues, and the police.

Chamberlain herself acknowledges that this was a research-heavy novel, but it doesn’t come across that way. The simplicity of the narrators’ voices, the un-sensationalised story line, the authentic emotions, combine to make this tale both challenging and gripping, heart-stopping and powerful. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to be a Jane Forrester, but I’d definitely have wanted her on my side, deceptions and head lice notwithstanding! How about you?

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Controversy writ large

News flash: ‘Reports of the death of the printed book have been greatly exaggerated.’ A recent study by the Publishers Association has shown that sales of printed versions are rising, and digital sales falling – the first time since e-readers were invented. Interesting. Watch this space, as they say.

But where am I with my own shelves of books …?

Ahah, yes: Julie Myerson has risen to the top of my pile. Author, critic, columnist, Myerson is no stranger to controversy. A few years ago she wrote a supposedly anonymous column in the Guardian called Living with Teenagers, which was later taken off the website in 2009 because the family were identified and one of her children was ridiculed at school. She’s also written about her father’s unsavoury side and her parents’ divorce. She’s revealed her own ‘breakdown’. But most notably, her very public eviction of her eldest child from the family home in 2009 caught the headlines. I remember it well – reviews of the book (The Lost Child), and her appearances on chat shows.

Reaction was mixed; admiration for her courage and honesty, criticism for her disloyalty and avarice (see for example). What exactly was going on behind the scenes here, I wondered? What would prompt a mother to expose her child in this way, turn their family story into a book, do so many interviews, make money out of their tragedy? What was her motivation? I felt I should make up my own mind on the evidence available.

Myerson books

Well, it’s taken me till now to read the book, now when my writerly brain is grappling with the whole issue or parent/child relationships. To give me context and perspective, I revisited her novel, Laura Blundy (which I read some years ago), and I also bought two of her other novels: The Quickening and Something Might Happen.

Overall impression? Her writing is quite dark with supernatural overtones. I confess I’m not a huge fan of her style. Too many. Short. Ungrammatical. Split up sentences. Like this. Can become annoying. And interrupt flow. The absence of speech marks requires extra effort. And dotting in and out of second person narration is an affectation that I find confusing and irritating. But I persevered nonetheless. And the verdict?

The Lost Child
The Lost Child
The most controversial book and the only non-fiction one of the three. It’s a curious mix of her own personal experience as the child of divorced parents and a mother in trouble, and the parallel story of her discovery of Mary Yelloly, a nineteen century girl who died at the age of 21 in 1838 leaving behind a touching legacy.

The historical research is fine but unexceptional. It’s the writer-as-mother theme that grabs my attention, with her eldest child, Jake, taking drugs, and by the age of 17, constantly truanting from school, out of control at home, lying, stealing, even physically violent with his parents. Ultimata are issued: behave or leave.
‘But we reach a point where it’s him or us. Him or this family …
And every day is given over to dealing with the wreckage. All the joy and pleasure of normal family life has been replaced with dull-eyed damage control.’

Myerson begs the school to impose boundaries; expel him. In the end she applies the ‘terrible‘ last resort herself: eviction from the family home; a change of locks on the doors.

Some reviewers have linked the two main threads by contrasting the Victorian scourge of consumption which decimated the Yelloly family, with the modern plague of drugs ruining the lives of the Myersons. Others parallel the loss of the nineteenth century mother with that of the twenty-first century one. Whatever, for me it’s the betrayal of Jake that overrides any other consideration of merit or otherwise. Does it really help raise awareness of the dangers of drugs to lay bare a ‘celebrity’s’ family troubles? Or offer consolation to other parents in trouble? I’m not convinced the price is worth paying. Added to that, doubts have been cast on the veracity of some of the personal story as well. I have no means of verifying this point either way. But I’m left troubled.

As for Myerson’s other books, they helped me to get a sense of her style and her predilections, and better to understand the ghosts and hints of the supernatural which haunt her writing generally. For the purposes of this blog, a quick summary of the fiction.

The Quickening
The Quickening
A honeymoon in the Caribbean: a holiday on an island paradise with the brand new husband, Dan, whom she adores – what’s not to like? But for newly pregnant Rachel the dream soon turns into a nightmare. Mysterious things keep happening. Strange and sinister people appear and vanish. A murderer strikes. Dan dismisses her fears as dreams, but who exactly is this man who married her with such haste after the death of her father? What secrets from his past are haunting them on this idyllic island of Antigua? The tension mounts as she struggles to avoid the fate she feels closing in on her; and the author certainly kept me wondering right up to the final plot twist.

Something might Happen
Something Might HappenIt’s all there – the gruesome murder, a trophy taken, the clues, the false trails, the search for the perpetrator, suspicion, a persistent family liaison officer – all the hallmarks of the classic whodunnit. But Myerson’s real preoccupation is not with solving the crime, but rather with the sheer messiness of grief. Mum of four, Tess, struggles to sort out her complex feelings for the murdered woman’s husband, for her own husband, for the liaison officer – but I’m afraid her behaviour stretched my credulity a step too far. However the erosion of trust within the community and the secret fears of the children are a salutary reminder that grief can threaten security and ripple out in hidden ways.

Interesting reads. Not in my top fifty favourites.

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