Hazel McHaffie

A Room Swept White

When I was working on my latest novel, Killing Me Gently, I was affected quite profoundly by the emotions of two of my characters who were struggling mentally in different ways. The closer I got to knowing and understanding them, the more tense and edgy I felt.

Imagine that situation in a time of a pandemic such as now! Real and justified anxiety. Widespread uncertainty. Close confinement. A reduction in social contact and support. Distorted perspectives. Suspicion. Less resources for support services. It’s a tinderbox.

And thinking along these lines took me to a psychological thriller I read some weeks ago:  A Room Swept White by best-selling writer of crime fiction Sophie Hannah. A psychological thriller set in ‘my’ world, so it ticked all my boxes.

From the outset we’re plunged into a hugely disturbing story, set brilliantly by means of two scenarios: a police briefing in a murder case; and an interview between an investigative journalist cum documentary maker and a middle-class physiotherapist recently released from prison.

We know from the blurb on the back cover that three women have been wrongly accused of murdering children, that all three are subsequently freed, and that Dr Judith Duffy, a paediatric pathologist and prime expert witness in their cases, is under investigation for misconduct. Then one of the three women is found shot dead in her own home.

TV producer, Fliss Benson, is suddenly and unexpectedly promoted to work on a documentary about miscarriages of justice, and on the same day receives an anonymous card with sixteen numbers arranged in four rows of four figures. But she has her own private and personal reasons for not wanting to work in this area. The card has to be significant; of that she’s sure, even though her boss dismisses it out of hand. The murder victim had a card with sixteen numbers on it arranged in four rows of four, in her pocket. And one by one other significant women are singled out for similar cards all penned by the same hand, all on expensive paper.

Then CID strongly advises Fliss to cease all work on the cot-death murders documentary. She knows it’s what she ought to do; she also knows she can’t do it. It’s nothing to do with justice, it’s her only way of  fixing whatever it is that’s eating away at her and her self-identity.

So many factors in this story rang bells and gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. The pathological details in the cases of the babies who died – suffocation, smothering, shaking, salt poisoning … Professionals damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t …  One social worker driven to suicide because of his failure to safeguard a vulnerable child .. Munchausens-by-proxy … Witnesses changing their minds, swayed by so-called experts. Jurors confused by the conflicting convictions and arguments … Court testimony distorted, coloured, changing … everywhere doubt, suspicion. And it’s so skillfully written, I was kept in confusion and suspense to the very end.

So why did it ring so many bells? Not just because it explores similar ground to my Killing me Gently … ahhhh, yes, … of course … it’s there in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Hannah took her inspiration from three real-life cases of women wrongly convicted, whose stories I followed closely at the time, and indeed mentioned in a post on this very blog – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel. Three human there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tragedies.

So, an excellent read, but perhaps not for vulnerable new mothers at this time of global tension and fear for the future.

Stay safe out there, everyone, and I hope you can find the space for reading those books you never normally seem to get round to!

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Coronavirus – keeping calm in a crisis

Remember that feeling when you come out of the cinema from a film, set in the wild deserted, snowy wastes of perpetual winter, and the sun is shining and people are milling? Disorientated. Discombubulated. It takes a moment for the world to steady on its axis. As a writer of fiction, I’m well used to that sense of hovering between reality and fantasy. But now it’s not just a sense – it’s for real. And we’re ALL experiencing it – every hour, every day. The greatest public health emergency of our generation. And it’s worldwide.

As a country, this week we’ve officially moved from the ‘containment’ phase of this new and spreading Covid-19 virus, into ‘delay’; desperately trying to keep demand within the capacity of our health services. On Monday things ratcheted up hugely. We’re now avoiding all unnecessary travel and social contact. My generation are deemed extra vulnerable and a protected species! … but we ALL have to take unprecedented decisions and actions.

© Can Stock Photo / nasir1614

Sound information is always key to good decision-making, but there’s so much out there, a lot of it hard to take in, sometimes even conflicting. Initially the official cautious approach of our Government was at odds with the advice of many scientists and the WHO who were looking for more draconian measures sooner. That felt troubling. Who were we to believe? For me, uncertainty was much more stressful than the fear of the illness itself. So I welcomed clearer instruction on Monday: I could now, with a clear conscience, cancel the week’s planned travel and social encounters, and prepare for a long period of increasing social isolation.

So, reviewing the situation thus far, with my ethical hat on, what influences or persuades me, and enables me to make an informed choice? Facts. Consistency. Authoritative voices. Transparency – being shown the workings behind the advice. Quiet expertise.

A concrete example: my personal opinion of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, I’ve been heartened to see him flanked by experts of undisputed scientific and medical pedigree, who add gravitas and authority to the messages given to guide us all in dealing with this ongoing and escalating crisis. Professor Chris Whitty is the Chief Medical Officer for England; Professor Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government – both men with yards of qualifications and credentials and experience. But best of all, speaking in a measured, calm and quietly dignified manner. In simple words we can all understand. It takes someone with real expertise and confidence to convey the facts in comprehensible lay terms without obfuscation or bombast, to remain unflappable in the face of challenge.

When, early on, Professor Whitty observed that rushing into panic mode and isolating ourselves prematurely was unwise, enthusiasm would wane, fatigue and non-compliance would set in, and the psychological as well as the practical consequences could be far more detrimental, I let my breath out gently. Here was a chap who understood human nature. Understood not only the epidemiological and medical aspects of the epidemic, the immensely complicated world of microbiology and disease transmission, but the lived reality of everyday Joe/Jane Bloggs. Against the bluff and bluster and pomposity that can so easily characterise people regurgitating secondhand facts and figures, these modest understated men defuse the panic. So when they tell us that THE most important thing is hand-washing and containment of nasal spray and distancing measures, we can all personally identify with such ordinary domestic strategies; we each and every one have a vital role to play in this global war effort. When they tell us that the time has now come to introduce more stringent isolation measures to save lives and reduce the burden on our front line emergency services, we can comprehend and accept the need. When they admit it will be really difficult and it will go on for a long time, we know they understand the consequences, they are in this with us.

© Can Stock Photo / coraMax

But my heart goes out to them, and all other ‘leaders’ who are called upon to make major judgements on behalf of their people/teams/dependents/clients/delegates/fans. My own personal sphere of influence is microscopic by comparison with that of these men, but nevertheless I feel the weight of responsibility. Just what is the wise and sensible choice? The devil is indeed in the detail. So, huge thanks to everyone who is doing their level best to steer us through these unchartered waters. And hats off to the countless unknowns who are quietly and effectively providing acts of kindness to cheer and support those in most need. Already this unprecedented crisis has brought out the best in people.

I rather like this apposite and quietly dignified quote from the Talmud: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’

 

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Behind Closed Doors

‘Behind closed doors’ … a familiar slogan, isn’t it? Instantly conjures up the horrors of domestic violence, abuse, and pathological relationships. And too often it’s women who are caught behind those doors, unable or unwilling to seek help, putting on a brave front for the outside world. So it seems like a fitting subject for a week that began with International Women’s Day on March 8th. The flags have already been raised: the Duchess of Cornwall calling for the topic of domestic violence and coercive control to be openly discussed, warning of the corrosive effect of silence; then the Duchess of Sussex using her last solo public platform before she retires from royal life to urge people to respect and value women. So let’s capitalise on that foundation.

Put the same term – ‘behind closed doors – into an Amazon book search, and instantly six titles of novels come up. Hmmm. Odd. My first check when I create a new title for my own books is to make sure it’s unique. But maybe ‘behind closed doors’ is irresistible. It’s so instantly evocative, speaking so powerfully, it can bear repetition without losing impact.

Hey ho. I’ve been sucked in, anyway. I already have two of those six ‘behind closed doors’ books on my shelves. The first one chosen because I’ve enjoyed Susan Lewis‘ writing before, and the second because I was – and still am – devouring anything claiming to be a psychological thriller.

Behind Closed Doors by Susan Lewis isn’t, I have to confess, as compelling as others she’s written. Fourteen-year-old Sophie Monroe has vanished along with her computer, mobile phone and a bag of clothes. The Detective Sergeant who’s investigating the disappearance is painfully reminded of a tragedy that tore her own family apart twenty years ago: her teenage sister vanished and has never been found. She struggles to separate the two stories and maintain perspective and judgement, as a tale of jealousy and fear and secrecy unravels. This one, to my mind, is overly generous with adjectives in places; all the characters seem to have secrets or tragedy in their past; and an improbable number of them have lost children or young parents. So I don’t plan to dwell on that one in this post.

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris on the other hand, promised a lot. A debut novel billed as ‘makes your blood run cold … fast and frantic …heart-pounding … utterly compelling …’ it fits the basic requirements for a psychological thriller which I can analyse without previous baggage.

‘Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.’ So why are there steel shutters on their windows, high walls round their perfect garden, and one window barred? Yep, we’re wary already, aren’t we?

In his professional life, handsome, debonair Jack is the champion of battered wives. Grace has given up her career to be a stay-at-home wife so he doesn’t have to come home to an empty house or an exhausted partner. Losing is not a word in his vocabulary. And ‘everything he does and everything he says is calculated down to the last full stop. He prides himself on uttering only the truth … He is so clever, so very clever.’

Enter new neighbours, Esther and Rufus. Esther is a woman who’s suspicious of perfection. What is it with this completely joined-at-the-hip couple? Why doesn’t Grace have a mobile phone, or have her own email address, or go out to lunch without him, or honour arrangements …?

What really is going on does indeed make the blood run cold. Here is a dark mind, an amoral compass, depravity wrapped up in immaculate manners and a charming devotion. As the past and present inch closer together we are rivetted to the page, willing good to triumph over evil, dreading the psychopath out-manoeuvring the victim. The ending is very cleverly crafted and maintains the suspense to the very last page. Scary stuff but an excellent example of tense and fast-moving plotting.

But behind the fiction, lies the real-life problem. Let’s not forget hidden women everywhere for whom oppression or abuse or injustice in any form is their lived experience.

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The Couple Next Door

Did you know it’s World Book Day today – Thursday 5 March? Yep; a celebration of writing and reading. Hurrah!!

So which of the hundreds of books I have on my shelves shall I share with you on this auspicious day? Ahah. Time methinks to confess.

I am officially at odds with the establishment. That was confirmed when I read a highly acclaimed novel which I sent for on the grounds that a) it’s billed as a gripping thriller and b) it sounds very like my own latest novel, Killing me Gently. Indeed, the similarities were too striking to miss:
the genre: domestic thriller
a baby missing
a marriage in trouble
the mum struggling to cope
readers finding it unputdownable.

All comments applied to Shari Lapena‘s book, The Couple Next Door, which predates my (apparently) similar tale by three years, but which I’ve only just discovered. I had to check it out, then! A couple of train journeys this week gave me the perfect opportunity to savour it without too many distractions.

The basic storyline goes roughly like this. Anne Conti is struggling to cope with her new baby, Cora. She’s not going out to work so the confines of home and constant exposure to Cora’s fussing, grind her down. Her parents are fabulously wealthy. They disapproved of her marriage to impecunious Marco, but to allow their daughter to live in style, they initially gave him money to buy a beautiful house and start up his own business. Father and son-in-law frankly hate each other. Marco has recently suggested to Anne mortgaging their home to allow him to expand the enterprise.

Living next door is seductive Cynthia Stillwell and mousey husband Graham. They invite the Conti’s for a dinner party to celebrate Graham’s milestone birthday, but at the last minute the babysitter cancels. Cynthia is adamant: no babies at her parties. Anne says, OK, she won’t go then. But against her better judgement, Marco persuades her to leave Cora asleep in her own cot, taking a monitor with them so they can hear if she wakes, and taking it in turns to pop across every half an hour to check on her physically. Shortly after 1 o’clock they return together … to find the front door ajar, the security light unscrewed … and the baby missing.

Shades of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann way back in 2007 evoked, huh? Layers of guilt and reproach and suspicion.

As the facts of their lives unravel, it’s clear that Baby Cora, barely six months old, blonde hair, blue eyes, weighing about 16 pounds, is alone in being entirely above suspicion. Everyone else is harbouring murky secrets and hidden lives: Mum, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, the couple next door! Who can you trust? Nobody is telling the full truth here. Detective Rasbach has his work cut out. Fortunately he’s nobody’s fool.

There are plenty of glowing testimonials for The Couple Next Door from well respected writers and publications. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. It bears the sticker: The most talked-about thriller of the year. It has attracted over 6500 comments on Amazon. Wow! Success by anyone’s measure. However, in the safety of my personal blog, I have to confess to personal reservations … seriously big ones at that.

Fair enough, the slow release of information casting doubt on the honesty of everyone, is  a page-turning tactic. The intriguing technique of the unreliable narrator keeps the adrenaline flowing. The principal characters are not very likeable or sympathetic or three dimensional, but at least we’re rooting for that little baby … and the detective. However, for me the style of writing really did not appeal. It reminds me of the audio description that provides information in a television programme for the benefit of visually impaired people – wooden, staccato, clunky. Points of view shift and we’re told bluntly what characters are thinking. All markers for ‘telling’ instead of more subtle and intriguing ‘showing’. I’m frankly astonished it has achieved such status.

So, though I can envy the author her success, I don’t wish I’d written her book. And I’m relieved that Killing me Gently could certainly not be suspected of being a re-hash of The Couple Next Door. Phew!

But let’s hear it for good books everywhere on this special day.  Long may they bewitch and inform and console and nourish us.

 

 

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What’s in a name?

Hmmm. I’ve just read a book that purports to be ‘A Story.’ Not a factual text, not a novel, something in between.

So a few definitions might not come amiss.
Story – an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Fact – a thing that is known or proved to be true.
Novel – a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

It gave me pause for thought. Because the book – Phoebe by Paula Gooder – is founded in fact, but about a character who is mentioned only once in the New Testament of the Bible (Romans 16 vv1-2):
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Lots of room for creativity then. Not a lot of restrictions. Well, except that Biblical texts and events and meanings have been debated for ever! And most practising Christians will have their own take on things. So what is Gooder trying to do?

In a nutshell, bring the back-story of the early church to the forefront. Give it breath and life. As she says on her website: her passion is ‘to ignite people’s enthusiasm for reading the Bible today, by presenting the best of biblical scholarship in an accessible and interesting way.’ For me, though I enjoyed the fleshing out of the character, I wasn’t as excited by the style of writing which attempts to teach … tell … inform … rather too much for my taste. The knowledge glowers through the mesh of the narrative, as someone once wrote of my own early writing! I learned from that criticism, which is partly why I suspect  ‘show don’t tell’ is wired into my DNA!

So why a whole book on an obscure character? Well, Phoebe is thought by scholars to have been given the responsibility for carrying the Epistle to the Romans from its author, the apostle Paul, to Rome in around 56AD (although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say she did). A significant event then, given that that particular letter is arguably the apostle’s theological masterpiece and contains a great deal of instruction and clarification for this new movement – the Christians. The book Phoebe is woven around that premise. And, of course, it’s fleshed out by yards of information that is conveyed in the Bible. The woman Phoebe provides a useful vehicle through which to explore so many questions and suppositions and theories about life in those patriarchal times, the experiences of the early Christians, and the doctrines and principles which underpin Christianity both then and now.

So, a flimsy foundation, you might be thinking; but no. Gooder is one of the country’s foremost New Testament scholars and her knowledge is prodigious, her research meticulous. Which puts a kind of stamp or authority on the writing, but in this case also bogs it down. You feel her desire to impart information. She reserves the real ‘scholarshippy’ facts to 85 pages of notes at the end (the story part is only 216 pages), which I found utterly fascinating and impressive. But throughout the text she feels compelled to spell out what she’s talking about. For me, as a novelist, I found it held up reading. I am hugely in awe and admiring of her as a scholar, but as she knows herself, she isn’t a novel writer – and she generously accepts her limitations in an endnote: ‘I am not a novelist – and to all expert weavers of stories, I offer you my admiration for your skill and my apology for the very many ways in which this story falls short of what it could be.’ You know, it made me wonder why she didn’t consult with a novelist and iron out a few of the more obvious anomalies. A little tweaking could have made a big difference.

She describes the book as ‘an experiment in historical imagination’. Phoebe is given a full back-story which gradually emerges and gives the tale momentum. Slavery, rights, ownership, the role of women, clashes of culture and opinion, all feature. Then there’s the most famous character: the apostle Paul himself, about whom much more is said in the Bible. His appearance and traits are depicted in ways that will startle many a believer. More peripheral players in the early church who are briefly mentioned in the New Testament books – Stachys, Titus, Junia, Andronychus, Patrobas, Gaius, Gallio, Aristobulus – are fleshed out by Gooder’s knowledge of life in those times. Their inclusion helps to give the ring of authenticity on one level, but at the same time raises questions as to the veracity of the whole at another level. Confusing.

As former Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: ‘Vivid and sympathetic … very few people are as expert as Paula Gooder in communicating biblical scholarship clearly and creatively.‘ It is creative, it just doesn’t quite marry fact and fiction sufficiently seamlessly for my personal taste. But it has reinforced a lot of my resolutions for my own writing – and that’s always part of what reading widely is about.

 

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The Captive Queen

Having devoured the two Tudor novels by Alison Weir (reviewed in recent posts), I was keen to read her third excursion into fiction: The Captive Queen.

This one goes back four hundred years earlier, to the twelfth century, a time of which, I confess, I knew very little. And it tells the tumultuous story of the making of a nation, of passionate personal and international conflicts, of a high-profile royal marriage in meltdown. Records that far back are incomplete but, as an historian and novelist of integrity, Weir has extended great efforts to fill in the gaps as authentically as its possible to do, as her end note explains.

At the core of this tale is the beautiful, fabulously wealthy, young  Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). As the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, she’s the most eligible bride in Europe. She’s also a formidably wise and firm governor, a trustworthy leader, and a woman who inspires passion, famed for her fairness, generosity and humanity.

But her own powerful emotions lead her into tumultuous situations. After fifteen years as Queen consort of France, she turns her back on a shattered marriage to King Louis VII, her crown, and two young daughters, to pursue the love of her life.

Louis VII has been more monk than either king or lover, and Eleanor is a sensuous woman with strong dsires. As soon as she can persuade Louis to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity within the forbidden degrees dictated by the Church, she launches into marriage with Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, who combines youth (he’s ten years younger than her) and handsome looks with voracious carnal appetites, conveniently drawing a veil over her adulterous liaison with his father Geoffrey. Their union represents not just the fulfillment of their love and lust for each other, but the founding of one of ‘the greatest empires in Christendom’, spanning vast territories on both sides of the channel. Henry becomes Henry II of England and they produce a further eight children together, three of whom later become kings themselves.

But in time Henry reveals his true nature: cruel, overbearing, jealous, self-important, serially unfaithful. Eleanor is forced to acknowledge that her own beloved subjects reject and dislike him and his dictatorial ways, and that she personally has gone from one disastrous marriage to a weak and inadequate man, into one where she is a captive wife to a very aggressive husband. When she remonstrates with him, he betrays his patronising view of women: ‘… a wife’s duty is to obey her husband, to rear his children, and to warm his bed when he so desires. And there it ends.‘ Never mind that she was a ruler in her own right as well as Queen of France before he ever met her! He increasingly sidelines her. By now Eleanor can see that he is utterly incapable of appreciating her point of view, and once his mind is made up, nothing will move him. ‘I am determined to have my way’ extends beyond ruling despotically, taking territories and insisting on absolute obedience; it includes deflowering innocent well-born girls as well as taking many other beautiful and available women.

When she discovers the extent of his unfaithfulness, in spite of the passion within their marriage, Eleanor feels totally betrayed. But when she confronts him, Henry is brutal: ‘We are a partnership, Eleanor. You are Aquitaine, and I am England, Normandy and the rest. Together, we straddle much of the western world. Nothing can sunder us, not even hatred. To be invincible, we have to work together, to give a semblance of being in harmony. Our personal feelings do not count.’ Political gain and advantage is his sole driving force. But even in her worst nightmares, Eleanor could not have envisaged just how vengeful this man she had once loved so passionately could be.

It is, however, his obsessive relationship with Thomas Becket, that proves Henry’s greatest preoccupation for years. Initially Becket, as Henry’s Chancellor, is his best friend and companion, so much so indeed that Henry entrusts his own eldest living son and heir, Henry, to his care and guidance. But when King Henry insists on making him Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket changes completely, becoming a hair-shirt self-flagellating ascetic, and in defence of the Church, turning against his King, and openly defying him. Henry’s rage, born of pain and betrayal, knows no bounds. In his desperate search for absolute power, he is even prepared to use his own infant daughters to score points against his enemies! Afraid for his life, Becket seeks refuge on the continent, further fuelling Henry’s impotent fury. When the King eventually extends an olive branch, Becket returns to England, but shortly afterwards he is brutally murdered in his own cathedral by knights who believe they are fulfilling the King’s wishes. Henry however, is wracked with guilt and remorse; this was never his intention.

Things go from bad to worse for him when Eleanor, disgusted by the extent of his domination and unfaithfulness, turns her back on him and, with her endorsement, his sons all rebel against his tyranny. He has her imprisoned, first in a single barren room in a tower in Rouen, later in a bleak wind-ravaged stone keep in Wiltshire, demoralised, starved of civilised company, cut off from the rest of humanity, with no news of her children – a terrible punishment for such a free spirit with sunny Aquitaine a constant ache in her heart. Only by degrees does he eventually relax the strictures and grant her more comfort and luxury, although she remains closely guarded.

A bitter decade follows. Henry seeks to have the marriage annulled. His newest paramour dies of cancer. He impregnates his son Richard’s betrothed, King Louis’s daughter, Princess Alys. Vile rumours discrediting Eleanor abound. The young King Henry dies.

It’s their shared parental grief that finally persuades Henry to release Eleanor, reunite her with her children, introduce her to her grandchildren, and free her to visit all her disputed fiefdoms  to re-establish her – and thence his – sovereignty. But good intentions only take them so far. Eleanor is increasingly appalled by the behaviour of her husband and her sons, and bowed down by the death of yet another of her boys.

Henry consigns Eleanor once more to captivity, in the same stone keep, and this time it is only his own death that releases her – after sixteen years captivity.  Now at last, Eleanor is appointed to rule England as its regent on behalf of her favourite son, King Richard. She rules wisely and well, puts many wrongs right, upholds the rights and interests of her people. But her success is dulled by the haunting tragedy and sadness of both her tortured marriages, all the mistakes and misjudgements, the enmities and betrayals, the loss of nine of her eleven children. She dies aged 82, amidst the peace and tranquillity of her sisters the nuns of Fontevrault, in the heartlands of the River Loire.

Apologies for such a long resume, but almost 500 pages of galloping story about such an exceptional, colourful and passionate woman and Queen, justified more than a bald summary. I’d highly commend this romping tale to anyone interested in a period of history that is so often shrouded in the mists of time.

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Three-a-Penny

Almost exactly 121 years ago to the day, February 1899, Lucy Beatrice Malleson was born in Victorian London. Better known as Anthony Gilbert or Anne Meredith, her two pseudonyms, she was prolific in her literary output but received limited sales and acclaim. It’s a refreshing change to read an autobiography that concentrates on ‘failure’. Even at the height of her success, when she slept with a glowing tribute from her publisher under her pillow, she mourned: ‘I was one of those unhappy authors who can please everyone except the public.’

Her memoir, Three-a-Penny, is like no other. And her motivation seems to be captured in Dorothy Sayers’ comment to her: ‘You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people.‘ Exciting enough, indeed, to justify a factual account of her life and ambition, but the author seemingly apologetic about her ‘mediocrity’.

From an early age Malleson made up stories. She began publishing articles and poems whilst still a teenager, and brought out her first crime novel aged just 28. In all, she went on to produce over 70 novels, as well as a number of plays for the BBC, before she died in 1973 aged 74. And yet, she never achieved the status of others of her generation. Nevertheless, she remained an incorrigible optimist;
‘… if you know in your heart of hearts that Providence intended you for a success and your main desire in life is to assist Providence to this end, why then you will never see a book with your name on the spine without the eager thought, “This may be it. This probably is.” And when the book sells no more copies than its predecessor, well, by that time you’re always neck-deep in another one, and this one, without doubt, will bring you that elusive fame and financial security that glimmer like distant stars on the far, far horizon.’ And I suspect her gritty determination to plough on despite modest sales, will strike a chord with us lesser writers far more than the success stories of the star-studded celebrity authors.

The beginning section of Three-a-Penny is the best, in my view. It might well be another novel! Her vivid snapshots of her childhood precocity and innocence, in particular, are utterly beguiling, not least because she refers to herself quaintly throughout as ‘one’ instead of ‘I’.

For example, she had her own clear and trusted theories about God. He was not above taking care of an unhemmed tablecloth, but he also kept an enormous ledger like the butcher’s. ‘God presented His bill when you died, and if you had done wrong you went to hell for ever. Hell was like a glorified nursery grate on which people lay, always, in imagination’s eye, decorously dressed in outdoor clothes, perpetually burning yet never consumed.’

Where babies came from exercised her for a long time. ‘One knew. They came in a doctor’s bag, each with a label round its neck. The doctor’s house resembled the giants’ larders of nursery days, crowds of infants in long clothes hanging on hooks awaiting delivery.’ When her own baby sister was imminent she was deeply troubled by the huge potential for the family to be given the wrong child.

On one occasion her mother insisted the nurse take her and baby outside to get fresh air in terribly inclement weather. Freezing cold, Lucy cried piteously and remorselessly, attracting the sympathy of ladies in fur. But not Nurse.
‘Nurse pushed the pram as though she were a machine. When we reached the Park she anchored it by some railings and went into a little house marked Ladies. She told me to come in too. My tears momentarily ceased. I had never been inside one of these little houses. But once there Nurse seated herself squarely on the wooden seat, plucked me over her knee, and went through the familiar ritual of lifting clothes and undoing buttons. Smack! Smack! Snack!
‘I’ll give you something to cry for, my lady,’ said Nurse.
I stopped crying in sheer astonishment. I had never realised they built little houses in public parks just for  this. I was so much surprised I made the rest of the journey in awed and crestfallen silence.’

Again and again Grown-Ups let her down. ‘You couldn’t believe them; they had a different truth from yours.’ She was forced to work out her own understanding of the world.

She was a precocious child, reading avidly, and romping home with full marks for her essays – her ‘only distinction‘. There was never any career other than writing in her sights and, aged 14, she applied to her father for £10 for a correspondence course to equip her to write for the press – for money. ‘Write! Under my roof! Never!‘ was his implacable response.

When the war started she was forced to a stark realisation. And by now the whole tone of the memoir changes to something much more prosaic and factual. One’s aunts became nurses; one’s menfolk did important war work. ‘… nobody thought it was proper to write novels and one was a little ashamed of reading them.’ Instead she went off to secretarial college and became an unpopular but diligent student, determined to make something of her life. Her first job was a sobering one, with the Red Cross, dealing with relatives searching for information about their missing sons and fathers. Against the nightmare of such raw emotion, a letter from the Family Herald accepting her poems came like a beacon in a dark world. Together with a postal order for three and sixpence. Success! But … ‘I hadn’t imagined I should ever be paid with anything less than a cheque’.

Work in a Government Department, increased her growing awareness that the war had robbed her, as well as the returning soldiers, of youth. She wrote regular columns and articles, subtly concealing political and sociological and economic ‘pills’ in a ‘lot of feminine jam’. She also sold some of her verse to august publications like Punch, the Sunday Times, the Observer, and certain literary weeklies. Buoyed up by this success she progressed to experimenting with novel writing, even taking time out from paid employment to do so.

Early efforts proved unsuccessful but two publishers eventually saw her potential. ‘One day you will write a good novel,  but this is not it.’ ‘You have the makings of a novelist, but you haven’t quite rung the bell this time.’ Those were the days when publishers gave feedback and Malleson benefited from their insights and advice. So, when a crime novel was accepted by Collins, she was wild with excitement. When it proved to be ‘a complete flop‘, failing to earn even the paltry advance offered to an unknown writer, she was devastated. To make matters worse, Collins subsequently declined to publish her next book, leaving her feeling permanently discredited by this double failure. ‘I no longer wanted to talk about books.’

Back to office life she went. The work was way beneath her skills and when she was alone she would cry with humiliation. ‘But I was like a dipsomaniac who cannot forsake his bottle. I began a new detective story …’

This time she decided to use a male pseudonym: Anthony Gilbert, and the book was comparatively well received, helped in some measure by the secrecy and speculation surrounding the author’s true identity.

During the next seven years she published no less than fourteen novels, many short stories, and a few poems. American contracts, second rights, and translation into six different languages followed. She felt sufficiently confident and socially conscious, to allow condemnation of the lack of support for the under-classes, to creep into the underpinnings of her writing: ‘What an opportunity they offered to a novelist!’  But she was not a fulfilled person. I was never more financially secure … but I was lonelier than I had ever been in my life.’ So much so, indeed, that when she found herself invited to join the Hiawatha Club for Women she couldn’t think of a single distinguished name to offer for a reference. ‘The women I know are all pure, home-loving people who don’t seek the limelight.’ 

When The Slump knocked the bottom out of the American market for English novels, Malleson’s agent recommended she concentrate on young romance as the most sure-fire bestseller. ‘That avenue being closed‘, she turned her mind to thriller-writing, naively believing there to be ‘no rules‘ and no need to pay attention to ‘psychology, probability, King’s English or logic‘. She allowed herself three weeks to complete the first one. But she soon realised she was sacrificing art on the altar of filthy lucre and abandoned this supposed shortcut to wealth. Instead she wrote and re-wrote and refined a new manuscript, a crime novel, and submitted it under the name of Anne Meredith. This one eventually appeared in 1933 where it attracted considerable interest and mixed reviews but reignited the interest of the Americans. And it brought her an invitation from Dorothy Sayers herself to join the elite Detection Club. Conditions for entry were exceedingly rigid; in no circumstances could a thriller-writer be admitted for instance! At the swearing-in ceremony, the candidates were reminded of the solemnity of their oaths: ‘… if you fail to keep your promises, may other writers anticipate your plots, may your Publishers do you down in your contracts, may Total Strangers sue you for Libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and your Sales continually Diminish’. Only a writer could, I suspect, feel the full power of such a curse!

Writing was an obsession with Lucy Malleson regardless of her public profile: ‘When I’m not writing, I am not more than half-alive. I am miserable, hopeful and dejected by turns. Then someone slowly emerges out of this mental fog …’ And this new character would quickly assume a full identity and drive her onwards again.

It was The Coward – about a man who accidentally commits a murder, the character with whom Malleson most identified – that precipitated her into the limelight amongst the literati. She had felt writing this story to be pure self-indulgence; no one would want to read it, but she couldn’t bear the thought of dying in an accident next day without finishing the one book she was most desirous of writing. To her utter astonishment it received rave reviews from the critics and fellow authors. But sadly, poor sales. It seemed she simply could not please the public.

It’s her very honesty that endears her to me. Her experience resonates.
‘… so many authors admittedly have these overwhelming qualms of self-distrust and a sense of their own futility’.
‘ … one reason why writing is such fun – it’s so chancy. And I wouldn’t exchange my one-chance-in-a-million for anybody else’s security.’
Rejection slips, poor sales figures, challenges to one’s sense of self-worth – these bedevil almost all of us; it’s how you react to them that matters. And Lucy Malleson shines through as humbly aware, doggedly determined, delightfully perceptive, entirely without pretension. The kind of person I should like to be placed next to at a dinner party.

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‘Calm down, dear!’

In a former life I used to be a midwife working in an extremely busy labour ward (I’m third from the right in this photograph). In spite of the fast turn-over, we spent long hours with the couples in our care, and often developed warm relationships. We were, after all, sharing one of the most special, intimate and precious experiences in their lives.  And for me certainly, it was always a privilege and a thrill as well as a relief to see the infants safely in their mothers’ arms. Indeed, I always said that, if it ever ceased to be a miracle, I would quit the job. It never did; I left for other reasons – good ones.

However, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. One day a mother registered a complaint against me with my boss. Why? Because apparently, I had exhorted her to ‘push into your tail end.’ It demeaned her apparently, reducing her to the status of an animal! Now this was fifty years ago, at a time when we’d never even heard the term ‘political correctness’, never mind become obsessed with the notion, but even so, I confess I felt mildly irritated. When you’re spending a good chunk of a day/night with a woman, encouraging, supporting, reassuring; working through official breaks and long past your shift-hours to deliver continuity of care, you don’t tend to doctor every word that comes out of your mouth. You’ve got more important priorities, I’d suggest. Especially if the woman hasn’t a clue what she’s supposed to be doing and has no knowledge whatsoever of the anatomical names for the parts of the body she’s employing for the mysterious but monumental effort of giving birth. But hey ho! I could only apologise and try to learn from the experience. Fortunately the Superintendent of the Labour ward was a no-nonsense, straight-speaking, hugely experienced woman who fully shared my values, and she generously let me know (without words) that I had her sympathy and confidence.

When I watch Call the Midwife on BBC1, I’m often reminded of those days, since the programme’s set shortly before the time I’m talking about. The Nonnatus midwives even use terms of endearment when encouraging the mothers in their care – ‘sweetie’, ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘darlin’!! Ppphhhwww!!! It’s some years now since real-life carers were told to eschew such expressions, lest patients/residents/clients, felt patronised, although I’m quite sure they were used in all innocence as terms of affection and engagement, not slights.

Nevertheless, all these decades later, I’m feeling a sense of disbelief. The Royal College of Nursing has just issued a document for its practitioners in which it advises against addressing women as ‘ladies’ to avoid causing unwitting offence … hello?! Other terms now off-limits include ‘pensioners’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘mankind’, ‘manning a ward’, ‘gays’ … Oh, and don’t forget to be scrupulous about selecting the preferred pronouns for people who don’t subscribe to the usual binary classifications, and … You get the idea. Nor is the RCN alone in this; it’s about three years now since the British Medical Association deemed the term ‘expectant mother’ to be taboo, lest it offend transgender people …!!!

Really? Seriously? Has the world gone completely mad?

In the security of my own blog, I think I might be allowed to voice a personal opinion and declare that I honestly think the powers that dictate these things would be well advised to concentrate on gaining more time for clinicians to do their jobs, without the colossal pressures currently hedging them about with stress and restrictions. Time for them to save lives, to ensure safety and the best care, in the first instance. Giving them breathing space – time to attend to those niceties and refinements without burning out themselves. Easing the chronic under-staffing and over-working they labour under, instead of putting even more pressure on them to examine every word before uttering it. Pphshaw!

It appears I got off lightly all those years ago!!

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Keeping the memories alive

As I’m sure you’re aware, it was Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday this week; 75 years since the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. And as ever I was profoundly moved by the first-hand accounts from survivors, their insistence that the horror must never be forgotten. It seems appropriate then to dwell on some aspect of it in my reading, so I chose a book that delves into the ongoing struggle for survivors of juggling memory with moving on.

There’s a Hebrew saying: Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city. That seems more than usually apposite for the novel I want to share with you today: Fugitive Pieces  (the book that gave me the quote).

Fugitive Pieces comes wreathed in superlatives: ‘lightness in gravity’… ‘exemplary and inspiring humanity’ … ‘exceptional literary craft’ … ‘exquisite care’ … ‘heart-shaking intensity’ … ‘extraordinarily taut and elegant’ ... promising much. Clearly a literary work, then. Yep. It won international acclaim and … big breath …  the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Award of Merit, the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, the Harold Ribalow Award, the Giuseppe Acerbi Literary Award and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Phew.

The  star-studded author is, however, new to me. Anne Michaels lives in Toronto where she composes music for theatre and writes poignant poetry. Her father’s family emigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1930s. After huge success with her poetry, Fugitive Pieces was her first novel, allowing her to move into a more expansive medium in her ongoing exploration of the relationship between history and memory, and how we, as a people, remember. She spent almost a decade honing it.

The principal protagonist in the book is also a poet, Jakob Beer, born in Poland in 1933. His first-person voice tells two thirds of the story. Everybody Jakob knew as a child has disappeared. They were Jews. Aged seven, he is forced to listen to the cries of his parents being murdered while he hides in a closet. When he emerges, his sister Bella has vanished, never to be found again, almost certainly brutalised.

Jakob escapes and hides before being discovered by a Greek archaeologist and paleobotanist, Athanasios Roussos, aka Athos. ‘Scientist, scholar, middling master of languages’ as Jakob describes him. Athos takes the lad home and hides him for four years, and Jakob clings to his saviour as the one person he can trust; their mutual devotion and affection are deep and real. But Jakob remains ‘perpetually afraid, as one who has only one person to trust must be afraid.’

After the war Athos is offered a job in Canada and takes Jakob with him. But, try as they might to start a new life with a new language and new customs and new responsibilities, both Jakob and Athos remain haunted by the past.  Athos spends long hours into the night recording the experiences; Jakob’s dreams are coloured by the associated terrors, both known and unknown. After Athos’ death, Jakob marries a young woman called Alex, but that relationship flounders as her sheer vitality and energy threaten to obliterate the precious memories Jakob is agonisingly seeking to resurrect and analyse.
The memory of his sister – a benign and constant presence, only a gossamer wall away, separated from him only by a fragile vibrating membrane …
The memory of the barbarity of the Nazis who decimated his family …
The memory of the Italians surrendering to the SS on the island of Zakynthos, the horrors that followed …
To lose those memories is to risk losing his very self. ‘… each time a memory or a story slinks away, it takes more of me with it.’

He hears the cries from the past, at first dimly, but if he lets them, they grow louder, more insistent, filling his head. He feels compelled to move closer to them, deeper inside himself, not to turn away. And to fathom the why of what was done to his people. He concludes:  ‘Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human.’  Animals, rags, refuse – these were fit only for the rubbish heap. Ethical principles were not, then, being violated in their minds. But Jakob struggles to include his beloved sister in that pile of inanimate rags. Or the infants born even while their mothers were dying in the extermination chambers. ‘Forgive me, you who were born and died without being given names. Forgive this blasphemy of choosing philosophy over the brutalism of fact.’

Athos had been a perfect companion. He helped replace essential parts of Jakob slowly as if he were preserving something precious and enduring. By contrast Alex is wanting to set fire to everything in his past and begin again on a healthier, more positive path. The bigger the pressure, the more Jakob shrinks away from her. She increasingly lives a life of her own until she can’t take any more, and walks away from his unfathomable lost-ness.

Once Jakob has plumbed the depths of what happened to his people, his family, and provided his own answers, he arrives at a milestone. He realises that his ghosts are not trying to keep him in their past, but to push him into the real world.

He eventually finds love with a poet Michaela – a ‘voluptuous scholar’ with a ‘mind like a palace‘. She’s twenty-five years younger than him. ‘Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it’s almost like joy.’  Understanding his past, attuned to his needs, accepting him just as he is, she helps him find true peace. And rest. And – half a century after his sister’s death – understanding. His sense of desolation finally eases away.

The language is unashamedly poetic and conveys the music within Jakob’s soul, so eloquent in his writing. So, to me, it feels somehow to stretch credulity somewhat when, in Part II, the same … dare I say it … ‘overwrought’ style is used for a new voice, that of Ben, one of Jakob’s students, who goes to Idhra on the Greek island of Hydra in search of the poet’s notebooks. He lives in Jakob’s house, searches for Jakob’s life in his notebooks, follows in Jakob’s footsteps over the island.

The Beer’s house is just as it was left, as if the owners will walk in and resume their lives at any moment. But tragically, they won’t. After only a few months of happiness together, Jakob and Michaela have both been killed in a car accident during a trip to Athens. Jakob, by this time sixty years old, has nevertheless been dreaming of a child of his own with his beloved: a new Bella or Bela to remember them through the years to come. Paradoxically the night of their death was the very moment when he was to discover the note revealing the magical news that Michaela was indeed pregnant.

Shutterstock image

Ben carries his own scars. His parents had been liberated from the ghettos four years before he was born, but they had steadfastly refused to talk about the horrors, which hung instead like dark shadows, silently, malevolently, pervading everything. ‘There was no energy of a narrative in my family, not even the fervour of an elegy … My parents and I waded through damp silence, of not hearing and not speaking.’ Their past comes through in their strange behaviours, colouring his experience of ordinary everyday life, only dimly comprehended. His childhood dreams are haunted by doors being axed open, by the jagged yawning mouths of dogs. His parents delight in small things, setting him bizarre standards for appreciating music, food, nature, clothes. For them, ‘pleasure was always serious’ – the aroma of a jar of coffee, the fragrance of freshly laundered linens, a new pair of stockings. They are adamantly opposed to taking even legitimate handouts from any authorities. They spend their every day fearing: ‘When my father and I left the apartment in the morning, my mother never felt sure we’d return at all.’  ‘Who dares to believe he will be saved twice?’ his mother whispers.

It’s through Jakob’s poetry that Ben finally understands, because it encouraged him to ‘enter the darkness and find his own way back’.

A meld of poetry and prose, Fugitive Pieces is a tale of memories, and finding peace and understanding even in the face of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Just one dimension in this unfathomable tragedy.

Hatred consumes you; forgiveness sets you free.

 

 

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.

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Harming children: Truth v fiction

Well, I must confess I had a real sense of deja vu this week.

Six months ago, my eleventh novel, Killing me Gently, was published. It centres on a young mum who struggles to care for her little girl and comes under suspicion of deliberately harming her. Health workers, social workers, the Child Protection team, the police, all get involved. And in spite of all the vigilance, all the protestations of innocence, the baby is still being harmed. Should the professionals take her away from her parents for her own safety? Or should they give her the benefit of the doubt? Either way there are huge risks.

Now here we are, in real time, in real life, listening to a mother from the west of Scotland who was falsely accused of harming her disabled daughter. She alleges she became suicidal and doesn’t want something as horrific as this to happen to another family, so she’s pursuing her grievances through the courts to highlight the issues.

I have no inside knowledge of this case, but the facts as I understand them from the media and an interview with the mum are:
PARENTS: Kirsteen and Craig Cooper.
CHILDREN: Three daughters.
YOUNGEST: Baillie, has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is tube-fed.
HISTORY: Baillie was admitted to the Children’s Hospital in Glasgow in December 2016.
The child suffered repeated infections which raised concerns for her parents, and they registered a complaint related to poor hygiene in the hospital.
A member of staff suspected Kirsteen was deliberately inducing illness in her daughter.
PROFESSIONAL SUSPICIONS: The mother was causing infections; cutting feeding tube; stealing blood to induce anaemia. Suspected diagnosis? Fictitious or Induced Illness.
CHARGES: A charge of attempted murder was brought in July 2017. Kirsteen was put in a cell overnight.
CONSEQUENCES: Baillie had to go and live with her aunt and grandmother; Kirsteen was allowed only very limited access to the child, and that only under supervision.
OUTCOME: Charges were suddenly dropped after a few months.
CURRENTLY: Kirsteen is preparing a legal case against NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital of which the Children’s Hospital is a part, is currently the focus of a public inquiry over safety fears and patient deaths from infection. It’s under special measures.

It felt decidedly spooky listening to and reading details of a situation with significant echoes of the plot which preoccupied me for a couple of years. I have huge sympathy fpr any parent whose baby is taken away from them, but … yep, there’s sure to be a but! … I’m forcibly reminded that most of this account comes from one source, viz. the mum. The whole scenario can look very different according to where you stand, but professional and legal etiquette denies the healthcare professionals a voice. My heart goes out to all those in authority who are required to safeguard the interests of the children in their care. Damned if they act, damned if they don’t. I made myself walk in the shoes of the nurses, the doctors, the protection people, as well as the parents and grandparents when I wrote Killing me Gently. It was not comfortable walking in any of their footsteps.

From a purely selfish angle, I’m profoundly glad my book came out before this case hit the headlines! At least I can’t be accused of stealing their story.

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