Hazel McHaffie

Look Behind You

Treading too close to delusion and insanity is bad for my health! I knew that when I was in my early twenties: I steered well away from psychiatry during my training, all too aware of the fine dividing line between normal and abnormal. I’m conscious of that same sense of unease when I read excellent novels about psychological and emotional fragility or abuse.

But having had a healthy break from psychological thrillers recently, I decided it was time to get back into them. So I chose Look Behind You by Sibel Hodge from my bookshelves, and was instantly sucked into that tense feeling when someone is playing with your mind, and you really don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined and what’s dangerous.

From the outset we’re dragged into a terrifying world, where the borderline between reality and fantasy is frighteningly blurred. 27-year-old English teacher, Chloe Benson, emerges from unconsciousness unsure where she is … is she coming to during an operation? after an accident? a bomb blast? in prison? after a terrorist attack? Her bewilderment and growing terror are palpable. Whatever the precursors, her senses tell her that her wrists and ankles are bound with rope, her head is splitting, she’s in some kind of underground tomb, surrounded by the smell of earthy mouldiness, dankness and decay. But why is she restrained? Who has abducted and imprisoned her? And what has happened to reduce her to this state of amnesia?

When she eventually escapes, more torment awaits her. No one seems to believe her story – not the doctors, not the police, and certainly not her husband, Liam. What’s more there’s ample evidence that she has a history of depression and hallucinations, paranoia and delusion. She’s even been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and detained in a psychiatric hospital. Papers and Liam attest to that, and the fact that her mother committed suicide.

Could she have imagined it all?

What is an indisputable fact, however, is that somehow she has lost seven weeks of memories. The doctors say she’s had an adverse reaction to medication – records show it’s happened before after a miscarriage. Is this simply another psychotic episode? By the time she’s sent home from hospital she has no idea what the truth is.

‘…the only one who really believes me is me, and until I know the truth, my life is in danger.’

Painfully, little by little, she pieces together the last seven weeks. Doubts and fears mount. And her conviction that someone is determined to harm her grows daily. Where can she go? Who can she trust? Not her husband certainly; she has endured two years of psychological abuse from him; she’s quite sure of that. Her best friend has gone into a retreat abroad, and is somehow unreachable. Her boss has as good as fired her, and one of her staunch allies among the students is under investigation by the police. There are no independent witnesses to verify Chloe’s version of events; the police repeatedly draw blanks, so they’re forced to the conclusion that it seems highly unlikely that any crime has been committed.

We, on the other hand, know something bad has happened. We’re on tenterhooks as Chloe relaxes her guard … will whoever harmed her strike again?

‘The constant fear is a burning hole in my chest as I blindly wait for something dreadful and painful to happen. I’m driving myself mad with it. I want it to be over.’

A large part of her doesn’t want to know the answer. The human brain is capable of blocking traumatic memories with amnesia, and some things are too awful to remember; could this be one of them? If she gets to know what really happened, she’ll be forced to re-live the horror of the underground tomb, feel again the terror … When she starts scrutinising the people around her, looking for clues, looking for suspects, everyone seems sinister or weird. But she can’t spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder.

When the appalling truth finally reveals itself, Chloe feels something akin to a sense of resigned calm. Sometimes it’s easier to just give up and give in to the fate destined for you. The waiting is finally over. She doesn’t have the strength to resist any longer. And it’s then that the police finally accept her story.

Phew. It was a relief to get to the end of this one. It reminded me of SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep: you’re suspicious of everyone and everything. An uncomfortable place to be. I felt decidedly edgy all day until I knew the truth. Good thing I didn’t specialise in psychiatry, huh?!

 

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Talking Heads and buzzing brains

This lockdown experience has offered a unique opportunity to take stock and think through my writerly options. Masterclasses online, bonanza reading binges, virtual literary festivals, quiet time, space … everything has been guiding me towards the formulation of a plan.

This week added another range of possibilities. You might remember Alan Bennett‘s playlets, Talking Heads, being broadcast back in 1988 – yes? I can hear Bennett’s own Yorkshire voice in my head still – droll, deadpan, downbeat, almost monotonous. So little is said; so much evoked. Famous actors (Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Penelope Wilton, Stephanie Cole, Bennett himself) took on the persona of each character and breathed life into those monologues – the alcoholic vicar’s wife, the paedophile, the antique dealer, the trapped aging son of a woman with dementia, the poison-pen letter writer … No subject seemed to be off limits, no matter how bleak. The characters were almost all inadequate, naive, suppressed, unfulfilled, and their perspectives invited pity blended with ridicule.

Thirty-two years on, new lockdown versions of these brilliant soliloquies have just been streamed again on BBC1, plus a couple of new ones written by the now 86-year-old Bennett. Perfect programmes to conform with the restrictions of this Covid-19 era, with household names such as Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walters, Martin Freeman, Sarah Lancashire, Jodi Comer, Maxine Peake, reprising the roles. And this time I’ve been viewing them much more critically. The writing is superb with the railway-line repetitive ‘I said …, he said …’ thrumming through them all, and the incidental one-liners masterclasses in themselves:
Borage bullying its way all over the borders
There’s been a verucca here, but it’s extinct
England offers more scope for caring than the bush
They don’t expect you to be an atheist if you’re a ‘Miss’

Shutterstock image

Just how did Bennett judge how much to spell out, how much to leave to inference? How did the thespians convey so much more than the words? How does the pathos somehow become so comical? What is it that keeps the suspense, forces me to watch and to anticipate and to think? Is there strength in the sheer breadth of issues covered, or could the format tease out nuances across a narrower spectrum of life experiences?

And a lightbulb went on!! My brain is currently toying with brand new possibilities for my own writing.

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The Lewis Trilogy

In the Lewis trilogy, the author, Peter May powerfully captures the atmosphere of the Outer Hebridean Islands, the customs, the traditions, the sparseness, the struggle to make ends meet, the quiet stoicism of Lewis men, the long reach of past events. As one reviewer put it: the emotional secrets of the bleak island are even deeper than its peat bog. I found the books completely mesmerising and so evocative of the islands as I experienced them a couple of years ago, and beguilingly empathetic.

Central to all three novels is Detective Inspector Fin MacLeod. Not only is he familiar with the terrain, but he was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, so when, in The Blackhouse, he’s sent there to investigate the brutal killing and evisceration of a man he went to school with, the case resurrects memories of the past with searing intensity. His parents’ death in a hit-and-run car crash when he was only 8; his friend’s terrible accident, which left him crippled for life; the tragedy that befell his best friend’s father on Fin’s initiation into an ancient island tradition; his broken relationship with Marsaili, the girl he loved. He’s acutely aware that something dark is lurking within this close-knit community. Ghosts begin to surface, skeletons to rattle, ramifications from those dimly-understood childhood days.

The entire set of books is firmly based in reality. Blackhouses date back thousands of years, but examples have been preserved on the Isle of Lewis to this day (as in the photo above). The medieval Lewis chess men are still in existence today. The customs too are genuine. Vivid descriptions of the islanders fighting against raging storm-laden seas, negotiating sheer rock faces, living out their enmities and grudges, the annual pilgrimage by the men of Ness to cull 2000 gugas on a rocky outcrop in the raging Atlantic seas, are nail-bitingly tense. And against such authenticity, the revelations of what had really transpired all those years ago, feeling the shutters lift in Fin MacLeod’s mind, the awful truth emerge, as a huddle of men hunch together in the smoke-filled blackhouse, is all the more horrifyingly poignant.

Although Fin’s eyes were closed, they were open wide for the first time in eighteen years. The sense that he had had all his adult life, of something that he could not see, something just beyond the periphery of his vision, was physically painful. He was rigid with tension. How could he not have remembered? And yet all his conscious thoughts were awash now with memories, like the vivid recollection of scenes from a nightmare in the moments of waking.

I didn’t see the denouement in the first book coming. It’s brilliantly realised.

In the second book, The Lewis Man, Fin is called back to the island when the body of a young man is dug up in the peat bog, where it has lain undisturbed for over fifty years. It’s extremely well preserved and DNA samples match it to Tormod Macdonald, the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili, and great-grandfather of his own granddaughter. The dead man has been murdered; stabbed many times, bound and dragged along a beach. But Tormod has dementia, advanced to a point where he has had to be put into care; he’s in no state to explain the connection, nor why he adopted the identity of a dead teenager. By this time, Fin, newly divorced and still grieving his own personal tragedy, has quit the police force.

‘Most people spend their lives never knowing what lies beneath the stones they walk on. Cops spend theirs lifting those stones and having to deal with what they find. I was sick of spending my life in the shadows. When all you know is the darkest side of human nature, you start to find darkness in yourself. And that’s a scary thing.’

But for the sake of Marsaili, and his new baby granddaughter, he is ready to apply all his skills, use his many connections, to unearth the truth, before the big guns from the mainland arrive, with no sensitivity for the ways of islanders, the silent stoicism, fierce loyalties, unforgiving weather, the unwritten rules, the harsh religious strictures. And what he finds is a tangled web of deceit and treachery, once again with sound foundations in the realities of life in the islands in the 50s. I was completely with Fin as he travelled the islands and the streets of Edinburgh piecing together the threads of half a century of cruel behaviours and tribal warfare, driven by a need to assuage his own sense of loss and deprivation as well as give Marsaili and their son, Fionnlagh, the answers they need to anchor their own identities.

In the last book, The Chess Men, an aircraft missing for seventeen years, is discovered in the residual mud and slime of a fifty foot deep crater left behind when a loch mysteriously and suddenly empties itself of water. What’s more, and even more oddly, the plane belonging to Ruairidh McKenzie, talented and successful Celtic rock star, is intact and undamaged. But inside is a body with terrible damage to the right side of his face and his skull; inflicted before death. And Fin, by now drafted in to help curb the poaching of fish and game on an estate, spanning vast tracts of inaccessible land, is instantly involved: his childhood buddy is centre stage, chief suspect.

By this time, I confess, my credulity is being stretched a tad too far. I’m not persuaded Fin’s life would have taken this path; and it’s hard to credit a string of murders on this island where it’s so safe nobody locks their doors and the police have very little experience with serious crime; and there’s a curious mismatch between the characters in the first two books and this one. The childhood escapades of Fin and his schoolboy cohort seem contrived and rather dull too, lacking the psychological depths and appeal of the previous writing. Nor was the denouement worth the effort of ploughing through so much inconsequential filling. So a huge disappointment.

Which all goes to show that even great writers can fall below their own high standards at times – heartening for us lesser mortals. And I’d still highly recommend the first two books. Oh, and a visit to the Hebridean islands!

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Coffin Road

If I were given the choice of where to live out six months of quarantine from a deadly virus, one of my first choices would be Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris. It’s breathtaking. Mesmerisingly, deeply, stunningly. Silver sands, clear turquoise water, utter tranquility.
The sea breathes gently upon the shore, phosphorescent foam bursting silver bubbles over gold.
But wild and unforgiving when ferocious storms sweep in across 3000 miles of uninterrupted ocean.

To set a dark and murderous tale against such loveliness seems somehow both incongruous and inspired. But that’s what Peter May has done. It’s only two years since I walked on those unbelievable beaches, drove along those deserted coastal roads, felt the icy salt-laden air roaring in off the Atlantic, so I had to read Coffin Road, and re-imagine the scenery he conjures up so vividly, my own personal memories enhancing enjoyment of his compelling storytelling.

A man washes up on the beach near his house not knowing who he is or where he is or what has happened to him. He’s wearing a life jacket which has saved his life, but why was he in the sea and why is there a terrible sense of dark foreboding hanging over him, a sense of knowing that something terrible has happened? Has he committed some sort of crime? Why is someone threatening his life now? The only clue to his identity is a folded map of a path named Coffin Road.

‘I cannot even begin to describe how dissociating it is to look at yourself without recognition. As if you belong somewhere outside of this alien body you inhabit. As if you have simply borrowed it, or it has borrowed you, and neither belongs to the other.’

An elderly woman recognises him, drenched and dazed, and walks him to his house; she calls him ‘Mr MacLean’. But there’s nothing in the house to give him any clues as to his identity. Even his computer seems to be wiped clean: nothing but blinking emptiness, even in the trash can. How can every trace of him have been removed so comprehensively?

By dint of careful listening without betraying his amnesia, he learns from neighbours that his first name is Neal, and he’s an academic from Edinburgh, writing a book about three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from Eilean Mòr, one of seven islands in the Flannan Isles to the west of the Outer Hebridean coast. It’s supposedly almost finished. But he quickly establishes that this isn’t, in reality, true. So who IS he, and why has he been lying about his life and reasons for being on Harris?

When a bludgeoned corpse is found on the very island Neal had visited he has a fearful dread that he must have been responsible for it. And since he can’t answer any of the police detective’s questions satisfactorily, they too believe he must be the guilty man.

Meanwhile miles away in Edinburgh, a teenage girl is desperate to discover the truth behind her scientist father’s suicide. Why did he abandon her? Was she to blame? Her last cruel words to him will be forever printed indelibly in her mind. Her quest takes her into grave danger and threatens to blow open a secret that could jeopardise the future of the human race and the planet.

 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but another aspect of this story that resonated with me, is that it involves bees, and we actually have three hives in our garden. We’re very aware of the essential role they play in the food-chain and existence of life on this planet, and watch anxiously if there is any hint of danger to them. So it was weirdly spooky when, coincidentally, as I was reading Coffin Road, our own bees swarmed no less than three times in two days! Unprecendented. Sent a shiver down my spine, adding to the sense of total immersion in this story.

I’m a fan of Peter May, as regular readers know, so I’m hoping to use the extra time of lockdown to start the famous Lewis Trilogy next. It’s been waiting for just such an opportunity. And revisiting the landscape of the Outer Hebrides through Coffin Road, has put me thoroughly in the mood.

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More festival fun

Wow! I’ve just attended my THIRD virtual book festival of lockdown! Feels like a real indulgence. This one was another trip to MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival, connecting readers with authors.

This time the focus was on historical fiction and included a stellar cast of well known names – Kate Mosse, Victoria Hyslop, Alison Weir, Elizabeth Buchan, Bernard Cornwell. Of course, they were speaking from their own homes, and I was amused to see them in relaxed lockdown mode (without benefit of hairdressers, makeup artists, camera men) side by side on the same screen with their professional promotional photos. But grooming aside, they were every inch the polished, fluent and accomplished professionals in their performance: responding to interview questions, sharing their favourite time periods, their experiences researching their topics or drafting their stories. And a day of listening to them positively enthused me, the old brain whirring into writing mode again.

They also inspired me to dig out a hitherto unread historical novel from my shelves: Philippa Gregory‘s Three Sisters, Three Queens … another household name. Perhaps the craftsmanship behind it will be even more apparent to me now that I’ve just heard about the painstaking work that predates writing such a book, the importance of a firm scaffolding of facts through which characters can weave and wander. Certainly I shall appreciate all over again the way the author must immerse herself in the dates and customs and places and mores of the time, even though most of the research never gets into the book. That’s a lesson I learned early on in my own career as a novelist: the reader mustn’t be aware of the knowledge you the author have acquired, but of course, hearing these marvellous writers talk about their obsessions, what they’ve learned, how much they know, serves only to make admiration of the finished product the more sincere.

Three Sisters, Three Queens will make a change from being back in my own specialist field of medical ethics, too. Three years ago exactly I wrote a post on this blog which looked at the subject of children in trouble through the novels of Susan Lewis. By some weird coincidence this very week a neighbour left the sequel to Stolen, the third book I mentioned back then, on the shelves at the end of our drive. Well, I had to read it, didn’t I? At the end of Stolen, Charlotte Goodman had fled to New Zealand from the UK with a little girl she had stolen from abusive parents. You said Forever picks up the story five years later. By this time Charlotte and lawyer husband Anthony have two other children biologically their own. Chloe, now legally adopted by Charlotte but not Anthony, is causing mayhem both at home and at school. When she threatens the life of the younger children, Charlotte knows drastic action is needed. But what? How can she choose between her children, the little people she loves more than life? She promised Chloe a forever-home; but can she keep that promise?

Lockdown is certainly affording me plenty of new experiences. I’ve even cut my own hair – very very short, slicing into three fingers at the same time! And painted the outside of our windows and doors, and renovated and wallpapered a walk-in-larder. Much ladder-climbing involved. It might just be a relief to get back to sitting safely at my desk writing!

 

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Three months and counting

Milestones are useful hinges for reflection: three months ago this week the first Covid-19 death was reported in the UK. Since then, as per the official statistics yesterday, in this country there have been a further 39,727 deaths recorded where the deceased had a positive test for the virus. Say that again slowly – THIRTY-NINE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN DEATHS. Not to mention the legion of unconfirmed cases. These are indeed unprecedented and calamitous times, so it seems fitting to consider something quite different here. Not a book; not a scientific paper; not even a film. But a newspaper article.

A beautifully written article in the Review section of the Guardian on Saturday, and one of the most sobering and moving pieces I’ve read in the proliferation of writings about this devastating disease. I wasn’t surprised to find that, before going to medical school, the author, Dr Rachel Clarke, was a current affairs journalist and documentary maker.

Her usual habitat is palliative care medicine in a hospice, but during this crisis she’s been working with patients dying of coronavirus. Politicians and journalists speak ‘loftily, from afar, an Olympian perspective’, she writes, and listening to them can feel like ‘a mathematical abstraction, an intellectual exercise played out in curves and peaks and troughs and modelling‘. But where she is, in a hospital, dealing with real people caught up in this horror, ‘the pandemic is a matter of flesh and blood.‘ And she is utterly appalled by the gloss the politicians have been putting on the devastation and loss.

Used as she is to comforting, hugging, being up close and personal, the very execution of her job now cuts her to the quick.
‘In PPE, everything is sticky and stifling. Voices are muffled and smiles obscured. Sweat starts to trickle into your underwear. Even breathing takes more effort. Behind our masks, we strain to hear each other speak and are forced to second guess our colleagues’ expressions. Being protected entails being dehumanised.’
Approaching relatives of the dying is immensely painful and counter-intuitive.
‘I am a doctor with neither name nor a face. My hospital badge is hidden from view and my eyes – the only part of my face still visible – are obscured by a layer of Perspex. So much for the healing presence of the bedside physician. I scarcely look human … Everything about this is wrong.’

She illustrates her experiences poignantly with reference to a single encounter with an 89-year-old man slowing drowning in his own secretions. His sons, bewildered and afraid, enter the other-worldly scene only for the last farewell. Her own emotions plummet as she watches helplessly, unable to offer the human warmth that is her instinctive response. Neither she nor they, want this elderly gentleman to be a mere statistic – a number reported in the next day’s death toll. He is so much more than that.

Dr Clarke and her colleagues at the frontline know for sure that the soundbites trotted out at the central podium in Downing Street each day have not been borne out by the reality in the Covid wards or the care homes. Social isolation, PPE, testing, lockdown – the deficiencies and delays and shortfalls have appalled them; the article captures the discordance perfectly.  Once lockdown was established, and the quarantined population were trying to manage its fears using ‘the unconventional strategies of baking bread and stockpiling toilet rolls’, the medical staff were reeling. Fearlessly, urgently, frenetically, they threw themselves into delivering high-quality pandemic medicine. They could only look on in disbelief as staff were obliged to fashion PPE out of plastic bags, patients were sent into care homes without tests to establish their Covid status, and restrictions were being lifted in the absence of the necessary infrastructure for proper testing and tracing.

The country may be letting its collective breath out cautiously as the numbers decrease, but they are still battling this deadly enemy. They feel sick as the politicians declare the success of their strategies; they know at first hand the stupendous costs of delay and deficiency, the real tragedy of thousands upon thousands of deaths and bereavements. They were, they still are, there, ‘up close with this dreadful disease‘,  seeing ‘the way it suffocates the life from you‘. For them political judgements ‘were grotesque‘. They themselves are ‘exhausted, stunned – shellshocked, even‘. Clarke’s verdict? The loss of so many vulnerable citizens is ‘entirely and inexcusably wrong … no one is expendable‘.

I certainly don’t envy any of the people who must make these decisions, but putting a spin on the devastation, peddling untruths and half statistics, making false promises, doesn’t engender trust or confidence. And as Dr Clarke says, ‘The point of our response to corona virus is not to flatten curves, ramp up headlines, protect the NHS or invent mathematically nonsensical equations: it is to prevent unnecessary dying’. And there you have it. The heart of the matter. Summed up by someone at the very kernel of this global catastrophe.

She’s the author of Dear Life, paperback version due out in September this year. It’s top of my wish list.

NB. To be fair, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her daily updates for Scotland, always stresses the tragedy of every single death.

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In it together

In a week where the fallibility of the UK government has reached a new low, I’ve been revelling in the human face of celebrity.

What a fabulous opportunity! I’ve been at the virtual Hay Book Festival – one of the most famous literary events in the world. Outside the dreaded virus might be lurking, political storm clouds may be gathering, but I was squirrelled away in my study, with no one to irritate me or distract me, before me a parade of authors and orators and experts, speaking from their own homes, to an international audience of hundreds.

And not unnaturally, frequent mentions of Covid-19, the very thing that has made it impossible to hold the real event in its normal location in Wales. Indeed, many of the events were specifically about the virus.

Regurgitating the science or philosophy would send you to sleep, but what struck me was that, against the background of their natural habitats, the speakers seemed more real, more authentic; they shared intimacies about their families, their lives, which somehow brought them closer to us.

So, for example, best-selling novelist, Maggie O’Farrell, was talking about her latest book, Hamnet, a fictionalised story woven around the life and death and memory of William Shakespeare‘s son of that name, who died probably/possibly of the Black Death (the most deadly epidemic in recorded human history), aged just 11. Obviously parallels with our situation today, and Maggie confessed she related very much to Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. She had needed to wait until her own son passed the age of 11, before completing the scenes of Anne sitting at Hamnet’s bedside, watching him die, laying him out for burial, mourning him for the rest of her life. Knowing that at any moment Maggie’s own children might erupt into the room, gave her responses both piquancy and urgency. And I loved the picture of her hiding in the Wendy House in the garden for a couple of hours to get some work done during lockdown.

Former Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, with yards of qualifications and distinctions, gave the special John Maddox lecture about anti microbial resistance. It could have been way above the heads of most people, but she came across as warm and understanding, with a lovely sense of humour. She shared her palatial study with us, but took all the pretentiousness out of it by showing how her husband had hacked off more of her hair than she’d requested. And her slogan: ‘work together and wash your hands’ – had a ring of truth and realism that the official messages from the Downing Street podiums often lack.

A message from this pandemic which came across clearly was: work together towards a kinder fairer world. I came away with a sense of a shared strategy, a world-wide community, that no mere political aide flouting the rules could dent.

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A serendipitous find

Well, what d’you know?! In amongst the plethora of books the kind people of my neighbourhood are putting on the communal bookshelves, I found one that grabbed my attention. There, on the back cover – fertility treatment, human experimentation … wahey! My kind of key words!

And the author? Val McDermid, whose skill with words leaves me battling the green-eyed monster. This particular edition of Blue Genes might look as if it’s been dropped in the bath, and stuffed under a pillow, and bent backwards energetically enough to release the middle pages from their moorings, but it nevertheless did a wee detour into my hands, and I devoured it over two days. Pure diversion.

Kate Brannigan is a private investigator whose life is disintegrating all around her.
a) She’s on the verge of buttoning up a case of fraudulent exploitation of bereaved people, posing as a new widow herself, when the supposed deceased man erupts into the scene at precisely the wrong moment, and blows her case to kingdom come.
b) Her partner in the firm, Bill, is selling out and she can’t afford to buy his share of the company.
c) And she discovers her best friend, Alexis, has been concealing a massive secret about the child she’s having with her lesbian partner, Chris.

Now she’s suddenly deep in an investigation where one of the chief protagonists is lying murdered on her own kitchen floor.  Her name’s Dr Sarah Blackstone, a leading gynaecologist, specialising in sub-fertility in Leeds. Her picture’s in the paper. Or … is it? Not according to Alexis, who identifies the murdered woman in the photo as Dr Helen Maitland, the Manchester specialist who helped her towards her dream of parenthood. So why has this doctor been practising under two different names? And why has she been killed? And why has she adopted the name of a real live medical colleague high-profile enough to have published extensively on recent advances in gene replacement therapy? And just how far is someone pushing at the frontiers of what is allowable in fertility treatment?

Criminal, legal and ethical quagmires aplenty. My kind of territory. What a treat!

And all delivered with Val McDermid’s customary brio. I don’t want to deliver any spoilers but I can share a few literary gems with you:

Ironing out the problems in my relationship with Richard would have taken the entire staff of an industrial laundry a month. It had taken us rather longer.

Alexis grinned and blew a long stream of smoke down her nostrils. Puff the Magic Dragon would have signed up for a training course on the spot.

As well as the red-rimmed eyes and the stubble, a prospective employer had to contend with a haircut that looked like Edward Scissorhands on a bad hair day, and a dress sense that would embarrass a jumble sale.

… a three-bedroomed semi with a set of flower beds so neat it was hard to imagine a dandelion would have enough bottle to sprout there.

The devil finds work for idle hands; if you can’t manage any other exercise, you can always push your luck.

Treasures one and all.

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On my bookshelves

It’s notable that so many folk we’re seeing on our screens these days – politicians, scientists, celebrities, TV presenters – appear in front of bookshelves. But hey, when I’m at Zoom meetings, so do I! Probably because for many of us, our main computers are in the rooms where we work. But it didn’t occur to me to criticize the material on other people’s shelves until Michael Gove was harangued for having a book by a Holocaust denier alongside other rather extreme literature, on his. Hmmm. It made me wonder … what would people make of my choices? Well, the truth is, it depends on which way the camera is facing in the room. Different walls display different genres. And the books I’m especially devoted to, appear in front of me – ie. behind the camera. But in any case, I certainly don’t agree with the substance or premises of every book we own. What would be the point in only reading things that you agree with? Surely you need to understand other perspectives, other ideas, in order to hone your own thinking.

It made me wonder, though. How do people judge me? As you know, I’ve been putting books outside at the end of our drive for passers-by to help themselves to, by way of distraction for lockdown. For the first few days the books, DVDs and CDs were all mine, but a neighbour put a post on Facebook about the bookcase, and since then I’ve had a tremendous selection of books, jigsaws, games, DVDs, quietly popped on the shelves – beautiful coffee-table hardbacks, dense tomes on the -ologies, best-sellers, how-to manuals, fourth-hand paperbacks, much loved children’s tales. The turn-over has been amazing. And despite the number that are snapped up rapidly, we’ve reached three shelves-full this week! An unexpected bonus. But … am I personally being judged by the books on display? Who knows.

Lockdown is offering lots of unforeseen opportunities for random acts of kindness and helping others, and I’ve been the beneficiary of one myself this past weekend. I attended a virtual Book Festival!

No need to take out a mortgage to pay for tickets, travel, accommodation. No necessity to hang around aimlessly for hours between events. This one came free, a composite of events originally scheduled for different venues around the country, now beamed directly into my study – no one able to peer critically at my book titles either! And I could even knit while I listened – a bonus when you’re just starting an adult jersey – a Gansey from Guernsey in fact – on size 13 (2.25mm) needles.

I particularly enjoyed listening to Terry Waite and Michael Morpurgo, who have such interesting takes on life as well as being brilliant writers. But there was something for everyone, so perhaps it’s not surprising that over twenty thousand people tuned in! Fabulous.

Hats off to the enterprising people who are masterminding these fantastic opportunities. I’ve already booked in for the famous Hay Book Festival later this month – what a treat. As are the multitude of programmes available to watch/hear: fabulous ballets, operas, plays, concerts, masterclasses. The arts and artists themselves have risen to the occasion magnificently, giving their time and skills generously, and I for one am profoundly grateful for all the extra cultural offerings which help to maintain mental stability and well-being in these troubled times.

 

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Misery: Learning from a master storyteller

OK, I know, I know, the one thing we don’t need when life is so out of kilter during a pandemic, is depressing literature. Certainly none of my ‘death’ and ‘tragic options’ stuff –  you’ll have noted I’ve been steering well clear. But long before we’d even heard of Covid-19, back in those halcyon days when there was nothing to prevent me poring over psychological thrillers, searching for the magic ingredients that keep you turning the pages long into the night, I read a cleverly constructed thriller that impressed me. Now I think about it, it puts a whole different perspective on lockdown; imagine not just being isolated and captive in a remote place, but being incarcerated with a violent maniac! So I thought I’d share its merits with you today, not just because it has parallels with our present situation, but because it’s the product of an exceptional mind and an impressive facility with words.

REPORTED MISSING: Paul Sheldon, 42. Novelist best known for his series of romances about sexy, bubbleheaded, unsinkable Misery Chastain; by his agent, Bryce Bell. ‘I think he’s fine, Bell said, ‘but I wish he’d get in touch and ease my mind. And his ex-wives wish he’d get in touch and ease their bank accounts.’ Sheldon was last seen in Boulder, Colorado where he had gone to finish a novel.’

Paul Sheldon is a writer of novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers. Annie Wilkes is his number-one fan. When he’s involved in a car accident during a violent storm, he comes to after being unconscious and delirious with the agonising pain of two shattered – no, pulverised – legs, and a horribly damaged pelvis, to find it was Annie who dragged him from the wreckage of his car, and took him to her remote mountain home in Sidewinder, Colorado. Having crudely splinted his legs, she is caring for him with large amounts of pain killers which have the side-effect of suppressing his breathing, necessitating occasional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

About ten days after regaining consciousness he discovers a number of things about his ‘nurse’. She is in possession of a great many drugs of a dubious nature; she has already managed to render him addicted to one of them, Novril. She is dangerously crazy. Everything she says comes out in the wrong key.  She’s also given to frequent episodes where her mind goes blank. She has a volatile temper; she is a woman full of tornadoes waiting to happen. She has previously had to take the stand for some major crime in a Denver court of law …

And she has told no one he is in her house.

As Sheldon discovers the hard way, Annie is seriously mentally ill – hovering on the murky borderline between ‘the Sovereign State of Reality and the People’s Republic of Paranoia.’ What’s more, she is much more than his carer; she’s a stern critic of his work. When she discovers he has killed off her favourite character, Misery Chastain, heroine of a string of romantic bestsellers … that he has then gone on to write a story full of profanities, 190,000 words of it … she exacts a terrible penalty. And Sheldon can only lie immobilised, his vivid imagination in overdrive, his present reality and his future destiny growing daily more horrific.

Misery is the perfect title – shared by the principal character in Sheldon’s book, a pig on Annie’s farm, and the total experience of Sheldon’s captivity and torture.

Master storyteller Stephen King has created a  terrifyingly grotesque character in Annie Wilkes, and devised a fearful form of entrapment for his hero, Sheldon. Both are so brilliantly realised they inhabit the pages and suck us into their reality. And having experienced the lengths to which Annie will go to punish him, we live in constant fear of still more appalling things happening to Sheldon. We can have no confidence at all that the hero will escape a terrible fate or even survive the story.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but I do want to draw attention to a few devilishly clever aspects of the writing.

First the stories within stories. Inside the whole tale of Sheldon’s captivity and Annie’s revenge are mini-tales – what Sheldon’s literary character Misery Chastain is up to; what Annie’s Memory Lane scrapbook reveals of her former life.

When Annie ratchets up the torture, Sheldon realises he is doubly cursed. Not only are his sensitivities acutely tuned to pain, but his writer’s mind is destined to remember every tiny detail of the horrors inflicted on him. And in his analysing, he reveals technical tips about creative writing – some in response to his lived experience, some through his writing. He’s acutely aware too that his captor understands certain truths about what writers can and cannot do, even though she is unable to enunciate them in writerly jargon. A few examples will suffice:

… resigned to the fact that he could not read stories as he had when he was a kid; by becoming a writer of them himself, he had condemned himself to a life of dissection.

… not being sure of things  ... was a charmless corner of purgatory reserved for writers who were driving fast with no idea at all where they were going.

a gothic novel … more dependent on plot than on situation.

The reason authors almost always put a dedication on a book, Annie, is because their selfishness even horrifies themselves in the end.

He felt as he always did when he finished a book – queerly empty, let down, aware that for each little success he had paid a toll of absurdity.

It gives an extra dimension of reality to what could be a totally unbelievable tale. Except that in the hands of Stephen King you believe it could actually happen.

An ancient manual typewriter is central to this book and indeed features on the front cover of my version. King’s description is wonderfully evocative: It was an office model from an era when such things are electric typewriters, color TVs, and touch-tone telephones were only science fiction. It was as black and as proper as a pair of high-button shoes. Glass panels were set into the sides, revealing the machine’s levers, springs, ratchets, and rods. A steel return lever, dull with disuse, jutted to one side like a hitchhiker’s thumb. The roller was dusty, its hard rubber scarred and pitted. The letters ROYAL ran across the front of the machine in a semicircle …  it already looked like trouble. The ribbon was a faded two-tone, red over black … A real antique … with a missing n … the missing striker like a missing molar in a mouthful of teeth worn but otherwise complete.

And there are 26 pages of the text of a new book Paul writes on that same typewriter with the n strangely skewed where it’s been inserted ‘by hand‘, reproduced in the book, giving a very clever ring of authenticity. And later, when the machine loses its t, that too is inserted by hand. T: the second-most-common-letter in the English alphabet. Imagine the labour involved. Imagine the implications even for someone writing this novel on a modern computer!! When the key hammer for e eventually falls off, there is nothing for it but to resort to longhand. An exercise that rendered Sheldon’s hand almost useless, so the last few pages are typed on the hated machine with ns, ts and es all filled in ‘by hand’. It’s a masterly touch.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and realised horrifying thriller, but I must confess I found the closing few pages which constitute Part Four disappointing. Indeed I read them twice, thinking I must have been too tired, too distracted, or missed the point. And of course, that realisation – when it’s found in a work by one of the best selling names in the world – teaches me something in itself. Which is what my endless reading is all about.

 

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