Hmm. One of the entries on my perpetual calendar this week read: There can’t be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full. It resonated! Which led me to take stock of things – novel 9 in particular. And in truth the state of play vis-a-vis my writing at the moment is probably best captured by a little analogy: it looks rather like the construction site near where we live, which has been in a state of flux for almost a year now.
Roads are laid, then dug up again …
Other roads go nowhere …
Ground is cleared and then weeds over again …
Barriers are erected to protect areas actually being built, but there’s little to see when they come down again …
Heaps of material are deposited in various places but seem to remain untouched …
Glimpses appear of the final product but they remain a promise rather than a functional reality …
However, I like to hope that there’s a master planner at work behind this seeming inertia and mayhem, just as my brain is (I hope!) at work on the novel currently under construction, even though outwardly I am frolicking with grandchildren and entertaining summer visitors and going on holiday and … well, you get the picture. And I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of interpreting my little parable without me spelling it out. One day something well-planned and understandable and attractive will emerge triumphant. It will! IT WILL!!
Ahhhh. This is the life. I’m far away on the beautiful Island of Mull off the west coast of Scotland with grandchildren, having a splendid island adventure.
Who wouldn’t feel restored and invigorated surrounded by all this peace, sunshine, crystal clear water, and long sunny leisurely days?
One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: Where do you get your ideas from?
My problem is not finding ideas, it’s curbing the ones that keep flooding into my mind. A vivid imagination was always getting me into trouble as a child; it’s still operating in overdrive today. Just take my morning power walk; it’s a mine of potentially fascinating stories (with due apologies to all my entirely innocent and God-fearing neighbours!).
Several properties I pass are completely obscured from view by dense hedges …
or new buildings …
I picture all kinds of dark and nefarious deeds happening, screened from public view.
A quiet middle-aged couple have kept themselves very much to themselves in this secluded neighbourhood for many years …
… then, one day a swing appears. Toys lie scattered on the grass. A young child is seen playing in the garden. She seems to be here to stay. Exactly who is this little girl? What frightening secret are the couple harbouring?
This dog scampers out of the undergrowth, tail wagging, something clenched in his teeth … what if it was … a human bone?! Police swarm everywhere, cordons fence off a nearby property, excavation begins …
This low road seems very secluded – innocent, hidden and rural ….
… but at 5 in the morning an early jogger glancing through the designs of a modern bridge overhead gets a glimpse of a figure all in camouflage green dragging a heavy black sack into the bushes … There for a moment, gone the next.
Who is the mystery person who tends this immaculate garden? No one is ever seen entering or leaving the house and yet there is never a leaf out of place …
Places of worship seem to offer plenty of scope! What is the source of the evil smell emanating from this boarded up church?
This religious building belonging to an exclusive sect is always locked and bolted … until one day, the gate stands wide open …no one is in sight … who has left the barricades unmanned? And why?
Who is the mysterious person who buys the top flat in the steeple of this converted church? Exactly what is she up to? Why does she creep about at dead of night? Strange packages start arriving for her – what do they contain?
Behind the pretty outside of this quaint little cottage what tragedy is unfolding …?
Exactly what happened to the disabled teenager who lived in this reputedly haunted house? There one day … not seen since …
How come there were only 35 elderly residents accounted for when this residential home closed down? Where are the two the records show as still alive? And why is the building still lying derelict seven years after apparently being sold for redevelopment?
A new young florist opens up a shop in the town. She starts to win prizes, attract customers … stealing them away from the long established florist in the high street. Tensions escalate; bad things start to happen … who is responsible?
Every day, every experience, every encounter has potential. As you can see, even my regular morning constitutional in familiar territory gets the old grey cells whirring – although usually along more focused lines, I must admit. Add to that all the intrigues associated with infertility, assisted suicide, organ donation, gender issues, genetic disorders, illness, death, etc etc etc and wow! who needs to look further for ideas?
Two things to report this week: both related to author appearances.
The first was a salutary lesson to me. I discovered quite by chance, and after the event, that a reporter had slipped incognito into one of the sessions I was doing and published a lengthy report of it! Phew. Had I known, I’d have been super-conscious of what I was saying, but I had no idea. I thought I was talking unscripted to a lovely group of book lovers in a public library on a beautiful sunny Wednesday evening about my latest novel and the issues it raises. They all seemed fully engaged with what I was talking about, and asked some very relevant questions. I simply responded to these and their non-verbal cues.
So it was a bit of a shock to find a pretty full account of what we’d talked about in The Edinburgh Reporter! A few comments have been given an emphasis or slant that I certainly didn’t intend, and hope I didn’t say quite like that, but hey, I’m impressed that the reporter gave our quite low key event so much space.
Then, this past weekend, I was one of four authors invited to take part in a Readers’ Day in North Ayrshire. We were each asked to select two books – one of our own and one other – to discuss in workshops. My choice was Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a brilliant novel about Alice Howland, a Harvard Professor of Neurolinguistics, who gradually loses her sense of self through Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease when she’s in her late 40s.
Why did I chose this? Because it’s a brilliant book which takes you inside the skin of this character and her condition. Because I work with people with dementia, so it’s a topic near to my heart. Because I’ve written on the subject myself (Remember Remember). Because I love a book that challenges me to think about important issues. Because I personally identify in many ways with both the author and her principal character, Alice. Enough reasons for my choice, huh?
By chance, dementia has been making headline news again this week too, so I felt it was doubly appropriate … not that the issue is going to go away any day soon, of course.
As we get better and better at curing illnesses, and health and life-expectancy improve, so the number of people contracting this particular set of diseases which affect the brain, memory and behaviour, grows. However, it’s a sobering fact that global spending in this area is five times below the level allocated to the field of cancer. It’s also a fact that many people now fear getting dementia more than they dread a diagnosis of cancer.
You’ll probably remember that last December, the G8 summit advocated a concerted global attempt to combat this growing scourge – in a nutshell, more spending and better coordination in order to find effective treatments. Common sense really. They drew attention to the horrific statistics at the time: approximately 44 million people currently suffering from it; a new case every four seconds; a global cost of 440 billion euros. A predicted increase to 135 million by 2050 (according to The Alzheimer’s Disease International Federation); numbers doubling every two decades (according to The World Health Organisation). The G8 pledged to find a cure by 2025. Bring it on!
And this week we’ve heard more of the same here in the UK: the government’s hopes, plans and deadlines for action – increasing investment in research, developing new drugs, giving early access to medication and innovative new treatments, world-wide pooling of resources.
Wouldn’t it be brilliant if people in their forties today – the prime minister, my children, their generation – loved members of families, with bright todays, and promising futures … people like Alice – could be spared the horrors of losing touch with themselves and their memories? Maybe books like Still Alice ought to be compulsory reading for anyone in a position to do something to further this aim; to remind them of the human impact of dementia. Hey, maybe we need readers’ workshops at an altogether higher level!
How did you feel, I wonder, when you heard this past week about the bodies of 800 children in a septic tank in Western Ireland, stumbled upon by a group of teenagers in 1995 and now suspected to be the tip of a much larger iceberg? The site was formerly that of a home for unwed mothers between 1925 and 1961; decades during which illegitimacy carried a serious stigma, abortion was illegal, and infant mortality rates were high.
I’m old enough to distinctly remember the effects of backstreet abortions: the terrible sepsis, the mutilation, the deaths of young women, abandoned babies … I was a practising midwife in Scotland in the 1960s and worked in areas of multiple deprivation as well as a large specialist hospital, so I saw these things firsthand. Even after the Abortion law came into effect here in 1967, Irish girls had no such provision, so they came across the sea secretly for a way out of their dilemma.
This latest news story of the 800 bodies brought back long-buried memories and emotions for me; it was a harsh era riddled with double standards and hypocrisy. But it also reminded me of a book I’ve read much more recently: A Small Part of Me.
The author is Nöelle Harrison who’s spent the last two decades living and working in Ireland, where part of this story is set. Briefly, the novel tells of a family hedged about by these same harsh realities and customs, at once offering protection and driving them apart. Christina’s mother, Greta, left home without warning when her daughter was just six years old. Her mother’s best friend, Angeline, took over the maternal role and eventually became her stepmother. Now in her early thirties, Christina has reached a crisis in her own marriage, and she goes on the run with her younger son, Cian, to find her lost mother and offer her forgiveness.
Her journey takes her to the west coast of Canada where she meets Luke, a native Canadian with his own sorry tale of family breakdown and guilt. They are instantly attracted to each other, and he helps Christina find the place where her mother now lives, although sadly they arrive one day too late. Angelina follows Christina and Cian from Ireland to Canada, and she reveals a very different story from the one Christina has believed all her life. (I’m deliberately omitting colourful detail so as not to spoil the story if you plan to read it.)
It’s not the easiest of reads. It flips about between both the main characters’ points of view and in time, and until I got to know the characters, I confess I found it a trifle confusing. Not surprisingly: both Greta and Christina have mental health issues; both apparently failed as mothers; both ‘lost’ their children; both had troubled childhoods. However Harrison subtly captures the constraints and customs and mores of an earlier time, the prejudice, the naivety, the punitive laws and judgements, which had a very powerful effect on women there – the same ‘decency rules’ which underpin the real life story of that macabre graveyard which is now the subject of a police investigation.
I, for one, would not want to go back to those dark days when life was cheap and appearances were everything … although, it could be argued that today’s permissive attitude to abortion itself cheapens life. What do you think?
Every now and then a book comes along that challenges the reader at a very fundamental level. Izzeldin Abuelaish‘s book, I Shall Not Hate, was that kind of a read for me earlier this year. (Apologies in advance: this will be a longish post to do justice to a powerful story.)
Whatever your preconceptions or affiliations or prejudices, this is certainly not a book for the fainthearted, and the experiences this man recounts make one feel ashamed of ever having complained. You might perhaps remember Dr Abuelaish appearing live on TV reporting the massacre of his family in January 2009. This, and its subsequent reproduction on Youtube, precipitated him into the public eye. But let’s go back to the beginning.
The boy Izzeldin was born and raised in a refugee camp in the Gaza strip. Reading about his shockingly deprived childhood, it’s hard to believe this was less than five decades ago (he was born in 1955), taking place while we enjoyed the normal privileges and freedoms we take for granted in this country.
‘We were everything the word refugee stands for: disenfranchised, dismissed, marginalised, and suffering.’
He vividly describes the grinding poverty that drove him to work for a pittance from a tender age to keep his large family in food, wearing cast offs from humanitarian aid bundles, bone weary and constantly hungry. As the eldest male he was also culturally required to shoulder responsibility for his parents and all his siblings.
‘Like most Palestinian children, I didn’t really have a childhood. Until I was ten, my family, which eventually numbered eleven (two parents, six boys – I was the eldest of them – and three girls), lived in one room that measured about ten feet by ten feet.There was no electricity, no running water; there were no toilets in the house. It was dirty. There was no privacy. We ate our meals from a single plate we shared. We had to wait in line to use the communal toilets and wait for water that was delivered by the United Nations. We were only allowed to fill our pots during certain hours of the day. We waited for trolleys to come by with kerosene or wood for us to buy to cook with. We were usually barefoot, flea-bitten, and hungry. We all slept together on a huge mattress that was hoisted up against the wall by day and lowered at night – except for the baby. There was always a newborn, it seemed, who slept in the same basin my mother used to wash the dishes, scrub the kids with a loofah, and clean the house.’
He was accustomed to seeing at firsthand the brutality of war, over and over again; he watched his meagre home being demolished to make a road wide enough for Israeli tanks to drive along; he was himself the subject of humiliating acts of cruelty and discrimination. All around him was hate and revenge. And yet, from an early age, Izzeldin believed in the common humanity of all races, of the potential for good, and the ‘hope for a better tomorrow’. He was, and still is, convinced that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace, to lead decent civilised lives, in safety and harmony. ‘It’s largely the leaders in both camps who continue to fight the unfinished battles of yesterday’, and the minority fanatics who carry out atrocities, who fuel the divisions, perpetuate extremist visions, and polarise opinion outside of the Holy Land.
Furthermore, he sees his own profession as uniquely placed to foster peace. Against all odds, thanks to his own determination, and his indomitable mother, he succeeded in his chosen career of medicine, becoming a recognised expert in obstetrics and gynaecology, infertility treatment, and public health. Race is irrelevant when you’re sick or in need of medical care, he says. He became the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital.
He also believes that if women and girls were accorded equal opportunities for health and education, they ‘could very well lead us to a peaceful coexistence.’ He certainly has reason to be grateful to the women in his own life. Not just his strong mother, but also his wife, left at home with up to eight children during his frequent absences for weeks, months, even a year, while he acquired the qualifications to break the vicious cycles of his inheritance.
The picture he paints of his country is a bleak one. Deprivation continues even to this day and everyone, including professionals like Dr Abuelaish, must endure them in the Gaza Strip. Water and sanitation services are on the verge of collapse; materials to repair the crumbling systems sit on an embargo list; the healthcare system is broken; access to hospitals and expertise outside the Strip is limited and not infrequently prohibited; a public health catastrophe is highly likely. Unemployment is extremely high; 70% live below the poverty line; farming and fishing face impossible restrictions. Exit visas are often denied for no good reason, limiting access to better lives and opportunities. All contributing factors in the escalation of hostilities in this volatile region. ‘It’s so easy to incite the people with the misery they’re in.’
But this book is not principally about the Middle East tensions, it’s one man’s personal crusade against seemingly impossible odds. Because a successful career didn’t render Dr Abuelaish immune to personal suffering. His nephew was deliberately shot in the legs and seriously disabled. Then his wife, Nadia, was diagnosed and died from leukaemia, all within the space of two weeks, leaving their eight children motherless, and Izzeldin a widower at the age of only 53. And then the worst catastrophe of all happened.
The Abuelaish family were desperately trying to regroup after Nadia’s death at the end of 2008, when the Gaza War erupted: an ‘insane assault‘ lasting 23 days. From the Palestinian perspective, Izzeldin calls it a ‘crazy annihilation‘ of the innocents. For those three weeks the family lost their faith in humanity; ‘God and each other’ were all they had left as they clung together waiting for what was to come. Then, on 16 January 2009, just twelve weeks after Nadia’s death, an Israeli tank blasted shells into the girls’ bedroom, blowing three of Izzeldin’s daughters and a niece to pieces. A tragedy so enormous and harrowing that it’s hard to even comprehend it.
Yet this man, their grieving father, has devoted his life to treating people on both sides of the conflict equally, and actively fostering understanding and reconciliation. His steadfast faith (he’s a Muslim), compassion and strength of character are at once humbling and awe-inspiring, and his book is one of the most powerful testaments to humanity triumphing over tragedy I’ve ever read.
‘We all need to understand that there are evil people in every country, every religion, every culture. But there is also the silent camp of people in every country who believe, like I do, that we can bring two communities together by listening to each other’s points of view and concerns. It’s that simple. I know it is; I’ve been doing it for almost all of my adult life. Look at the Middle East, the bruised Holy Land, and its generations of hatred and bloodshed. The way to replace that is with dialogue and understanding.’
The terrible massacre of these innocent girls inspired renewed and widespread calls for revenge but, even in the depths of his devastation, Izzeldin knew that ‘hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace’. Besides, no amount of retribution would bring his beloved children back. Instead he writes: ‘This catastrophe … has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide. I understand down to my bones that violence is futile. It is a waste of time, lives and resources, and has been proven to beget more violence. It does not work. It just perpetuates a vicious circle… To find the light of truth, you have to talk to, listen to, and respect each other.’
And he extends the challenge to us all: ‘… wiling is not enough. We must act. It is well known that all it takes for evil to survive is for good people like you to do nothing.’ (my emphasis).
[You can see an interview with Dr Abuelaish here which challenges him on some of the points in his book.]
The month of May has highlighted for me the amazing and heartwarming altruism of many people.
We’ve surely all been hugely impressed by the story of charismatic teenager, Stephen Sutton, using the limited time left to him to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Right up to his death he didn’t waste energy or time feeling sorry for himself but ‘felt privileged’ to be in a position to raise the profile of his disease (colo-rectal cancer) and do what he could to help move scientists closer to an effective treatment. Inspirational lad.
But for every exceptional headline-making person like Stephen there are countless others beavering away in their own quiet corner, doing their bit for mankind. And this weekend I witnessed a beautiful example of this.
The Edinburgh Marathon Festival was held over Saturday and Sunday here in Scotland’s majestic capital city; three of my own grandchildren (as well as my son and son-in-law) were running in it. And I was amazed at the sheer number of little tackers jumping about at the starting lines sporting tee-shirts emblazoned with logos for a variety of charities – connected with everything from meningitis and arthritis in children, to research into cancer and Alzheimer’s. They’d made the effort to raise sponsorship money; in so doing they’d simultaneously raised the profile of many different needs. And then their little legs pounded along the track to justify the support they’d acquired.
The MC gave all these altruistic youngsters a special endorsement, as do I. Millions of pounds are raised in such ways but equally important, what a terrific attitude to inculcate into growing minds.They are helping to make the world a better place in more ways than one. I salute them all.
Jeffrey Eugenides book, Middlesex, is one of my top twenty favourites, so I naturally pounced on his third novel, The Marriage Plot, when I saw it in a bargain book shop for £1. But … oh dear … it was only my Mastermind rule, (‘I’ve started so I’ll finish‘), that kept me reading. It’s very long (406 pages of tiny type), very dense, and for me not very satisfying. I try to be positive in recognition of the colossal amount of work that goes into writing a book, but this time I’m afraid I have to share more disappointment than praise.
Essentially the story is of a love triangle set in Brown University in the 1980s with three idealistic young people in love with books and ideas. Leonard Bankhead is a clever scientist and charismatic loner. Madeleine Hanna is intensely attracted to him. But her old friend, theology student Mitchell Grammaticus is convinced Madeleine is destined to be with him. So far so standard. But this is no classic Victorian romance, and the book is literary rather than commercial fiction; I knew that, so why was I less than thrilled?
Eugenides is without doubt an accomplished author – he’s won prestigious prizes too – and he set the bar extremely high with his first novel, Middlesex. In The Marriage Plot his inclusion of wide-ranging and erudite detail – of place, literature, mental health, science, psychology, politics, history – is impressive. There was even an aspect of the story that was of particular interest to me: the unravelling of an illness, bipolar disorder, or as it was back then, manic depression, which he handles with enviable authenticity and sensitivity. I’ve seen the devastation this illness can cause, and Eugenides has captured its modus operandi without allowing it to override the central narrative thrust … goodness, I’ve adopted ponderous language myself now! Sorry.
There’s plenty of humour in the book too. At one point an eccentric elderly female scientist is interviewed following the announcement that she’s just won the Nobel prize:
‘Dr MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?’
‘I was asleep. Just like I am right now.’
‘Could you tell us what your scientific work is all about?’
‘I could. But then you’d be asleep.’
‘What do you plan to do with the money?’
And plenty of clever throw-away lines:
‘ … he didn’t so much run the class as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality.’
‘… moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe …’
‘Chaouen was painted light blue to blend in with the sky. Even the flies couldn’t find it.’
But as I ploughed laboriously through it I could identify increasingly with the heroine’s sentiments. Early on she attends a Semiotics class and gets bogged down in the abstruse use of language. She goes to the library to grab an ordinary comprehensible nineteenth century novel ‘to restore herself to sanity’. Ah, here was a story she could understand without effort, with people in it, something happening to them in a place resembling the world as she knew it. ‘How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!’
At times with Eugenides’ book I felt myself drowning in the complexity of the allusions and profound thoughts. It just felt like too much hard work with too little reward. And I found it hard to care about the three central characters. Yes, I too wanted to escape into wickedly enjoyable narrative. How very low brow of me! But hey, come on, I did persevere to the bitter end. And the knitting for good causes grew apace.
As a reward to myself I bought a stack of more promising reading from another charity sale (it’s been a very busy week with special events for three charities I’m involved with). Goddard, Grisham and Coben are tried and tested favourite authors. Baldacci I’ve yet to sample. Joys in store … mmm.