Hazel McHaffie

Charlie Gard: Letting go

I’ve personally had a more-than-usually stressful year this year but it’s nothing compared with the one the family and staff involved with little Charlie Gard have had.

Charlie Gard
I guess you’ve all heard about him, the little lad born last August with a rare genetic disorder which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage. Blind, deaf, kept alive on a machine, unable to swallow food, with little or no awareness of the world around him. And totally unable to speak for himself. Yes?

This baby has become an unlikely celebrity, not just here in the UK but around the world. Even the Pope and President Trump know about Charlie and have attempted to intervene (hmmmmm …). Why? Because his parents, Connie Yates and Chris Gard, have been unable to accept the medical advice of doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London that their son is so irreversibly damaged that he should be allowed to die with dignity. Instead they want to take him to the USA for experimental treatment, and the public have been so touched by their tragedy that they’ve stumped up £1.3 million to fund this long shot. But to date Connie and Chris have been denied that opportunity … and then they were given more time to build their case … and then this week the neurosurgeon recommending this treatment was flown over from the States to assess Charlie … and now the case is going back to the courts tomorrow. And all this time, staff are caring for him, keeping him alive, against their better judgement.

Now that’s what I call real stress. All round. OK, I know there’s been huge coverage of this story but forgive me if I add my mite. And if I take a while to say it carefully. (I’ll compensate with a short post next week. Promise!)

My viewpoint
I should probably explain, that in a former life I was a university researcher, and this whole business of withholding or withdrawing treatment from very ill babies was exactly what I studied in great depth over many years. As part of my investigations I interviewed 176 medical/nursing staff and 109 parents involved in these kinds of cases. Harrowing stuff. And so powerful was the voice of the parents that the book reporting this study (Crucial Decisions at the Beginning of Life) was voted Medical Book of the Year in 2002 by the British Medical Association. At the award ceremony it was said that listening to the voice of these parents would be salutary for all medical personnel in their dealings with families across all disciplines.

So what did these mothers and fathers tell us? That they wanted to be closely involved in the decision making process. It was part of being a parent. Not all wished to have the final say but they all wanted to be part of the team responsible for the decision. It stands to reason it cannot be only down the parent; they don’t have the knowledge or skill or medical expertise required. It’s a team effort, doctors, nurses, parents, working closely together, all putting the baby’s interests at the centre of their deliberations, drawing on other experts and supporters where necessary. Mutual trust, respect and collaboration. That’s the ideal.

In Charlie’s case something has gone catastrophically wrong – for reasons no one outside that tight knit group around Charlie’s hospital bed can really know. The parents have told their side of the story to the media, we’ve heard what they think. But the doctors are bound by professional ethics to respect the confidentiality of their patients and families; their arguments will never be articulated in public. And one side of such a complex case is never enough.

So I want to make a couple of points which I think are being overlooked in at least some of the reporting.

The staff
This famous London hospital has had Charlie in its care for months and months. Those intimately involved in his day-to-day management will have formed real affectionate ties with him. They want only what’s best for him. And as they’ve watched him deteriorate, with each grim test result, all unseen and unsung, the team will have agonised over the options, done all in their power to explain to the family the bleak prospects and consequences of prolonging the dying process. They’ll have understood the catastrophic implications for the family, given them time to accept the facts and the prognosis. Trust me, they didn’t want to go to court. It’s very much a last resort when all efforts to communicate effectively have failed but the child is clearly at risk of harm.

Which only goes to show how convinced they are that it is not in Charlie’s best interests to spin the dying process out. They are quite sure that any further treatment would be futile. They are quite sure that keeping him alive isn’t a kindness, may indeed be a harm. And the courts – from the High Court through to the European Court of Human Rights, have all upheld their expert medical view. Which brings me to one of the points I want to make which I haven’t seen included in media reports. Decisions about medical futility rest solely with the doctors. They know; parents don’t. Furthermore in law they are not obliged to treat a patient when they know it to be useless. Nevertheless, Charlie’s doctors have been prepared to keep treating him – expensively, around the clock – to give the parents more time; time to come to terms with this tragedy; time to say goodbye. And in practical terms, this translates as, each day doing things with and for him that go against their own better judgement. How harrowing must that be?

The parents
Of course the parents are ‘utterly heartbroken‘. They’ve discovered that they both carry a faulty gene and that’s why Charlie has this terrible illness. One after another their hopes and dreams have been cruelly dashed. Dreams of a perfect baby. Hope that the damaged baby will survive. Hope that the brain damage might be reversible. Hope that a completely unproven (not even tested on mice!) experimental treatment might just save him. Hope that they will fulfill their daily promise to him that they will bring him home – to the room, the cot, the toys, that they have lovingly prepared for him. Hope that if he has to die, he will slip away in that private gentle environment.

And yet, it seems, even in the face of all the evidence, the parents are struggling to accept the enormity of Charlie’s medical situation. His mother is so deep in denial that she even thinks her little boy could grow up to be perfectly normal. If only! They believe strongly that parents know best. They perceive the experts who say otherwise are somehow denying their prior parental rights, and Charlie a right to life. And with such a major breakdown in communication, trust has been lost. Cut adrift from their anchors they are ready to clutch at any straw, exhaust every remote possibility.

From a purely human standpoint, their cry is perfectly understandable: ‘We are utterly heartbroken, spending our last precious hours with our baby boy. We’re not allowed to choose if our son lives and we’re not allowed to choose when or where Charlie dies‘. Upsetting, bewildering, devastating. Totally. We can sympathise with that. But – and it’s a big but – there comes a point at which letting go is a greater good than saving biological life. The medical team know this. They know it is not good for Charlie to be subjected to all that is keeping him alive, or to further futile treatment. And they have sworn to ‘do no harm’. But the parents are desperately trying to save him.

I can only hope that when the decision is made that Charlie should be allowed to die with dignity the parents will be allowed to set things up for those last precious days, hours, minutes, in such a way that they will feel like a real family saying a gentle farewell, free from the bitterness and resentment that has characterised this painfully extended battle.

Well-meaning public and outsiders
The nations’ hearts bleed for these parents. Of course they do. Hundreds of thousands of Joe Bloggs have rushed to sign a petition supporting them. The Pope has reached out to them: the Vatican hospital is at the family’s disposal and will gladly look after Charlie. The President of the USA has assured them of support from across the Atlantic; Charlie has now been granted permanent residence status in the US to allow him to be transferred and treated there. On the face of it, all very compassionate and caring. But hey, let’s not forget the realities here.

None of these people has any idea what this disease means; most have never even heard of the condition (mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome) or the supposed possible treatment (with nucleosides), never mind knowing the exact circumstances in this particular case. Not even the medical expert from the States who was flown in to consult with the GOS team this week knew the full picture until he’d done tests and held long meetings with Charlie’s doctors. So, laudable though it is to care, this kind of blind support can in fact be counter-productive. Only those people intimately involved are qualified to say what is the right thing to do. And as for those misguided people who’ve attempted to intimidate the medical personnel responsible for Charlie, even to the point of issuing death threats – words fail me. But the extremity they represent should be a cautionary tale to the rest of us: the public are not experts. Crowd hysteria, vitriolic rhetoric, are no substitute for calm, measured, informed debate.

There’s going to be no happy outcome here, it’s a desperately sad and difficult case, but let’s not join in the demonising of the experts – medical or legal – who are only doing the horrendously difficult job that their years of training and experience equip them for, and doing it with the utmost discretion and integrity.

 

 

 

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Charles Dickens: The Gas-Light Boy

Last week I shared with you something of Dickens’ mastery of the written word. Seems appropriate in this week’s post to follow it with a dip into a book I’ve just finished reading. It’s the first of two volumes about the author’s own early life: Charles Dickens: The Gas-Light Boy by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, published back in 1976.

Written very much in the style of Dickens himself, it takes the form of a rags-to-riches novel and is eminently readable. I particularly love the use of dialect to convey so much about class and education and place. Here’s an exchange between the young Charles and an orphan servant girl:

She threw him a gap-toothed grin of admiration. ‘You do talk nice, Master Charles. But it’s all a lot of rot for all that, ‘cos we need bread today. We can’t feed the nippers on jam tomorrow, Master Charles.’
‘I take your point, Orfling dear …’
Suddenly she flared up. ‘Oh, drop it, Master Charles, drop it!’
He stared. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nuffin.’
‘Really, my dear Orfling …’
‘If you must know, Master Charles,’ she almost spat at him, ‘it don’t relish a person to be called Orfling all the time. Orfling, Orfling!’ She threw up her hands and jumped down from the sacking.
It had never occurred to him. Perhaps the Chatham Orfling has felt so. ‘I suppose not,’ he said slowly, climbing down. ‘I never thought about it.’
‘Well, fink about it, then.’
‘All right. What is your name?’ There was no answer.
‘What is it for, goodness sake? What shall I call you? Miss Crumbs? Henrietta Apple, Lady Bluenose? What?’
She jerked round to face him. ‘If you must know – I don’t ‘ave a bloody name.’
‘Exactly why we call you Orfling.’
She began to cry. ‘I may be an Orfling but I got me rights to ‘aving a proper name like uvver coves do.’

At the tender age of 12, Charles was pressured into taking a job much against his will – ‘My education isn’t finished. How will I succeed if I’m only half finished?’ – knowing even at that age and stage that all he really wanted to do was write. For six or seven shillings a week he got a book-keeping job in a stinking rat-infested waterside blacking factory where he was bullied relentlessly and felt most terribly alone.

No detail of this traumatic twelfth year of his life was ever to vanish from the mind of Charles Dickens.

But by the time he reached his late teens, the family fortunes were temporarily reversed by the death of a rich relative. He was given another stab at school, and became proficient in shorthand, leading to his employment as a law clerk and successful reporter. All these opportunities, plus hard work, determination and ingenuity – qualities he recognised as the hallmarks of ‘a true professional writer‘ – started to generate a decent income.

It was mixing with people across all strata of society that exposed Dickens to the reality of life in those times, giving him the extraordinary insights and empathy that we see in the rich authenticity of his characters. He knew at first hand what it felt like to live in penury, even in a debtors’ prison, because of his feckless father’s irresponsibility; but he also knew the comforts that came from success. He knew the pain of unfulfilled love, as well as the ups and downs of married life and fatherhood. Drawing heavily on his experiences, he produced lively articles and serialised stories; papers began to pay him, publishers to offer substantial advances.

Although he loved acting and the theatre, it was writing that turned him from a nobody into ‘Somebody‘. But despite his success and growing fame, working with publishers and illustrators was not without its own headaches, and the scene over the cover for Pickwick Papers will resonate with many an author still today. Chapman and Hall had seen fit to depict Mr Pickwick in a punt, dozing over a fishing line.

‘Mr Pickwick does not go fishing,’ declared his creator emphatically. ‘it is most unlikely that he will ever go fishing. I believe, indeed, that he absolutely detests fishing.’
By now Chapman and Hall were thoroughly intimidated by their fiery young protégé. They exchanged a nervous glance before Hall ventured, ‘I suppose he might go fishing – sometime – under protest. Might he not, Mr Dickens?’
‘Out of the question, Mr Hall.’
Chapman cleared his throat. ‘Look here, Dickens. I doubt if the readers will take Mr Pickwick up as a sort of religious matter, you know. They will be content enough to see him fishing in a good drawing on the cover and read of him doing something else in the text within.’
Hall backed him up. ‘I daresay Mr Chapman is right, you know.’
Charles gave them an acid smile. ‘I have no doubt that Mr Chapman is right. The point at issue, though, it seems to me, is something different. I believe my readers will expect my characters to have a consistency and a truth which will justify them in following their adventures with devoted application.’
…..
Chapman sighed. ‘It’s a question, then, of whether the artist is to follow the writer, or the writer the artist.’
‘The text comes first, Mr Chapman.’
‘In this case the plates came first. The initial idea was Mr Seymour’s, you know.’
‘Pickwick is mine!’ Charles cried passionately. ‘I will not allow him to be misrepresented by anyone.’
Dear me, said Chapman’s eye to Hall’s, this fellow is a confounded maniac.

And when Charles met the artist himself sparks flew. Dickens tried to soften Mr Seymour up with a fragrant tankard of grog and lavish compliments but met only supercilious disdain.

‘I have come, Mr Dickens, not to get your puerile advice on my career, but to give you a little advice about your own. It is this: a shorthand-writer may become a first class hack, but the best hack in the world will never, never be an artist.’
To which Dickens replies: ‘… let me tell you this, Mr Seymour: whether I am a shorthand-writer, a hack or an artist, I care not. I tell tales for money. But if you are to draw my tales, sir, you will draw them as I write them. Good night to you, sir.’

Rich considering who this particular ‘shorthand writer’ and ‘hack’ was, huh?

It came as no small shock to the self-dazzled Charles, still infatuated with his brain-child, to hear that on the night Seymour finished the new plate for The Dying Clown he had gone into the garden and blown his brains out.

His brother Fred tried to comfort him; Charles couldn’t have known the man was ill, he assured him.

‘He was ill!’ Charles shouted. ‘I am ill. Every artist, every writer is ill, Fred. The illness is loneliness, the impossibility of communicating with people other than those who live in our minds.’

And this obsession with his imaginary worlds became more and more pronounced as his fame grew.  His internal companions took him over completely, his real wife was neglected. The early death of his teenage sister-in-law, Mary, for whom he felt real love, immortalised her in his mind: ‘Mary would always be perfect, because she was dead.’ But his devastating grief spawned even more intense writing, further enhancing his appeal.

At twenty-six, he was a celebrity. Fashionable hostesses vied with each other to entertain him, and he maintained the same debonair ease at the table of the terrifying aristocrat Lady Holland as at that of the beautiful Countess of Blessington, queen of the demi-monde society at Gore House. The actor in him came out strong on these occasions, enabling him to conceal his lack of formal education and social background. He knew nothing of art or literature in the widest sense. He had never had a lesson on which forks and knives to use at a banquet, but he was learning fast, and it would be a sharp eye indeed that detected him in making a mistake. Almost incredibly, he was elected a member of the exclusive sought-after Athenaeum Club, on the grounds of being an Eminent Person.

At twenty-six!

But his success was to be always over-shadowed by his father’s irresponsibility and improvidence. John Dickens lurked ‘in his shabby lodgings, spider-like, ready to creep out at any fortuitous moment to snatch a few guineas from his son’s pockets‘. He even sank to stealing scraps of his son’s writing from his wastepaper basket or desk to sell to collectors, and to concocting a fraudulent scheme to obtain money from Charles’ insurers. As a result it fell to Dickens Junior to carry the burden of supporting the entire family:

‘… writing, ever writing, to support his ‘petticoats’, Catherine and Georgina, the ever-growing brood of children, the brothers who were turning out to have the streak of extravagant fecklessness in them which he would struggle so hard to discourage in his own sons, even his father-in-law, George Hogarth, now fallen on poor times. And, for another nine years after the flight from Alphington, there would be his chief pensioner, his father: ebullient, self-confident, shameless, treading the flowery path which his son had carved out for him, dipping into that son’s pocket as cheerfully as the growing cuckoo grabs food from its harassed foster-parents.

It was some small revenge perhaps that John Dickens became the model for Mr Macawber in the book that was most autobiographical: David Copperfield. Charles was thirty-nine and a very famous figure indeed when his father eventually died.

‘Whatever John Dickens had owed Charles throughout his life, it was fully repaid now, and would be, over and over again, in the sales of the book.’

Perfect poetic revenge, huh? But bought at a very high price.

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Learning from a master

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In my occasional musings about authors who break stylistic rules and get away with it, I haven’t as yet mentioned our old friend Charles Dickens. We all know he’s lauded and revered for all sorts of reasons, not least his perspicacious commentary of social issues, but only recently did I see an article about his narrative audacity. It was in The Author, and by Professor John Mullan of University College London, who’s currently writing a book about the great man’s novels. I found it so fascinating I thought I’d share some of his comments with you.

Professor Mullan maintains that it was Dickens’ experimental approach to prose that set him apart from all previous novelists. The ‘fizz of his sentences’ redefined what constituted eloquent prose. He latched on to habits of spoken English normally scorned by writers – clichés, redundancies, common parlance, idiosyncrasies, exaggeration, repetition, lists – and used them to brilliant effect.

Specific examples best illustrate the point, I think.

First then, clichés. OK, all self-respecting writers are taught to wage war against clichés. And yet Dickens brought out ‘the energy lying dormant within‘ them. Example? The famous opening of A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Two common phrases – ‘to begin with’ and ‘dead as a door nail’ are used very cleverly here. ‘To begin with’ tells us that this is the first fact to state, but it also alerts us to the fact that Marley will be coming back to life as the story progresses. Neat, huh?

‘As dead as a door nail’ …? Dickens explains:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Can’t you just hear some famous thespian declaiming these lines as an aside and the audience appreciatively roaring with laughter? Dickens not only brings this popular adage to life but he plays to the doubts we may harbour ourselves about the finality of a death: certainly the ‘common way of asserting that a life is extinguished will not be enough to stop this dead man returning.‘ (my emphasis)

Or another example of a cliché used for amusement as well as depiction: Mr Pecksniff the pious hypocrite in Martin Chuzzlewitt is telling the old man from whom he hopes to win a legacy, that he despises money.

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

Figurative absurdity that conveys so much about the man.

Another literary no-no: exaggeration. Generally speaking, less is more. In Dickens’ hands, however, it arouses our sense of the ridiculous. Listen to this passage conveying Mr Dombey’s exultation on the birth of a son, ‘not quite noticing that his wife is near death‘, and his sense of self importance, in Dombey and Son.

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre … A.D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombeii – and Son.

You can feel the thud on the floorboards as the pompous fellow struts up and down, chest puffed out, self-satisfaction written all over his face, can’t you?

Repetition is another no-no for writers normally, but Dickens uses it to great purpose – to convey obsession – in Our Mutual Friend.

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby …

Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?

Then there are lists. Mullan shares two superb examples from Dickens’ pen. The first is Pip’s disgust as he takes in the horror of having a convict’s money paying for his gentlemanly expectations in Great Expectations.

In all his [Convict Magwich] ways of sitting and standing, and eating and drinking, – of brooding about in a high-shouldered reluctant style, – of taking out his great hornhandled jackknife and wiping it on his legs and cutting his food, – of lifting light glasses and cups to his lips, as if they were clumsy pannikins, – of chopping a wedge off his bread, and soaking up with it the last fragments of gravy round and round his plate, as if to make the most of an allowance, and then drying his finger-ends on it, and then swallowing it, – in these ways and a thousand other small nameless instances arising every minute in the day, there was Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman, plain as plain could be.

You can feel Pip’s eyes absorbing these habits with dawning horror, can’t you? All those small foibles amounting to a massive, eye-opening, most unwelcome realisation.

The second is also from Great Expectations (resonates with me particularly since I studied this book for O-level English lit back in the day). Pip is narrating his journey down the Thames estuary determined to intercept the packet boat to France so that his benefactor can escape.

For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child’s first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and the little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

Not one of us lesser spotted authors, I suspect, would dare a sentence this long, this repetitious, and yet, it works beautifully in the hands of Charles Dickens, doesn’t it?

I’m indebted to Professor Mullan for this illuminating new look into Dickens’ cleverness. Maybe, after all, the rule book for writers needs revision …? No, rather, I suspect that only the true expert knows when and how to bend those rules to such spectacular effect. And how many of us will ever aspire to Dickens’ giddy heights?

 

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More on researching my topics

As you know, when I’m researching for a new novel my antennae are out at full stretch. Anything that hints at issues I’m planning to include jumps out at me and I’m ready to devour whatever might help me gain insights or understanding, fact or fiction. Not all these books appeal to me but I can usually find something that makes it a worthwhile exercise. Besides, it’s a good idea to size up the competition!

So, The Escape Artist by Diane Chamberlain, was a must-have when I saw it in the supermarket. It’s about a young mum, Susanna Miller, who goes on the run rather than lose her eleven-month old son to her ex-husband and his new wife. Unusual mother-child relationships. How far would a mother go to keep her child? What would the effect be like on the child?
Verdict? Writing style wasn’t up to later Chamberlain books (it’s one of her backlist numbers) but the ideas were worth pondering.

 

Similarly, The Way we Were by Elizabeth Noble (designated ‘Queen of the Heartbreaking Novel’)  struck me as potentially relevant. A chance meeting between childhood sweethearts years after they’ve gone their separate ways, a bunch of step-kids, broken relationships, emotional baggage … hmm.
Verdict? Definitely not the style of writing I’d normally go for, but useful to watch how this author weaves lives together.

 

I saw a comment recently in the review pages which stopped me in my tracks. The reviewer was commenting on what he called ‘grip lit’ with particular reference to Paula Hawkins (of The Girl on the Train fame). She’s just brought out her second book, Into the Water, that’s also been much hyped so you may have heard about it. But he said: ‘there’s something about being held in the literary equivalent of a half-nelson that I find, unsurprisingly stifling‘. Hmmm. So you can be too gripping. Must remember that if this thriller of mine ever comes off.

I’m at the stage now where the characters are starting to get real flesh on their bones, so I’m wide open to new ideas. Time for an A* author, methinks. Exciting stuff. Funny thing; with all my previous novels I was rather reluctant to read alongside writing, but with this one I’m enjoying analysing other people’s work whilst developing my own story. Not sure yet if that’s good or bad!

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Children in trouble

Eh dear, why did I decide to write about pathological parenting? It’s causing me a fair few troubled nights, I can tell you. I’m currently trying to get inside the skin of children … parents … professionals … involved in these disturbing situations. And boy, is it harrowing!i There’s a heavy cloud hanging over me just reading about these traumatic experiences.

With all this in mind I was instantly drawn to three novels by Susan Lewis which I discovered in a charity shop quite by chance on my way to a hospital appointment. I zipped through the first two chapters while I waited to be called.

I’ve always marvelled at the ability of social workers to bear the burden of troubled families where parents may not be the best people to look after their offspring. Deciding when that line is crossed, taking them away … dealing with criticism whichever way they go, threats, physical harm … I’m not made of that kind of courage and stamina, that’s for sure. So it was profoundly disturbing to walk alongside overworked and under-appreciated Alex Lake as she lurches from problem family to problem family in No Child of Mine.

Alex is a social worker, passionate about protecting children from those who mean them harm. In No Child of Mine, there’s a veritable A-Z of toxic situations: abandonment, alcoholism, broken relationships, desertion, drug addiction, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers, mental illness, murder, paedophilia, physical abuse, sexual violation …! Yoiks! How do social workers ever manage to switch off? How do they preserve professional barriers? If they don’t care, are they in the right job? If they do care, what price do they pay for emotional connection? How do they cope with being principal scapegoats for the press and public? If, on top of that, they carry the additional burden of an horrific history of their own, as Alex does, what then?

Challenging tales to say the least. Taut, sinister, intense. I wanted to wrap Alex herself up in a comfort blanket and smuggle her away to a safe place, never mind the children! Small wonder that Susan Lewis found this one of the hardest stories to tell (… caution there for me!). And we’re left wondering if the fragile solution at the end can possibly hold. Which is why the author chose to continue the story in a sequel: Don’t Let Me Go. Since both books are a door-stopping 580+ pages long, I guess it’s lucky for us she split the story into two parts!

By now Alex has reinvented herself as Charlotte Nicholls and moved to the other side of the world. Life in New Zealand in a new family helps to heal deep wounds, but then suddenly, dramatically, her entire world is blown apart. Do pure motives ever excuse illegal actions? Should a vulnerable child become a victim all over again just to ensure the paperwork is all shipshape? What price is too high in the search for justice? I was on tenterhooks to find out the fate of a terrified and traumatised four-year-old. How would she react to being ripped from the heart of a family who loved her so deeply? And handed to a series of strangers, strangers who held none of the keys to the doors that protected her from her own private hell? And how would the law deal with a professional who had knowingly flouted its diktats? I’m relieved that we got to hear how the situation was resolved, although it’s sobering to realise that neither Chloe/Ottilie nor Charlotte/Alex can ever erase the traumas of their early lives.

I might well quibble about some dubious elements of this story – there are issues with time frames and professional boundaries – but such is the compelling nature of the storyline that I found myself well able to suspend disbelief in order to focus on the underlying messages. And as a result I have even more respect for the brave souls who spend their lives working for the good of these vulnerable children, too often unseen and unsung – like our emergency services dealing with this terrible spate of atrocities and tragedies. And for authors like Susan Lewis who help us to understand in our hearts as well as our brains.

NB. The third book, Stolen, didn’t resonate in the same way and I found the story line too far fetched to be plausible. But since the subject matter is less relevant to my own character development or research, nothing lost there.

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The Undertaking

Imagine a book opening with consecutive sentences starting like this:
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘She …’
‘He …’
‘But he …
‘The ground …
‘He …’
‘The man …’

Yep, visions of primary school teachers underscoring with red ink imploring pupils to vary their structure … A-Level students receiving a begrudging scraping pass … a manuscript landing with an irritable thwack in the publisher’s waste bin, unread beyond the first page. Definitely a no-no in most people’s handbook of good writing.

And then there’s the complication of three German soldiers working alongside each other, sharing experiences and food, sharing a mission ‘to clear the communists and Jews from Russia‘ – all three surnames beginning with the same letter: Faber, Fuchs, Faustmann. Who thought that was a bright idea?

I could go on listing broken rules and yet … and yet … this book, The Undertaking by Irish author, Audrey Magee, was published by a reputable company, has been much lauded and admired, and was even shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Justifiably.

As reviewers have said it’s ‘An engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book‘; ‘A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back’; ‘A moving journey through the emotional hinterlands of grief and guilt.

The language is sparse, the structure simple, the dialogue pared to the bone. But immensely powerful. Set in the time of the Second World War it tells the story of a German soldier, Peter Faber, fighting on the Russian Front who marries a photograph of a woman he has never met in order to get leave and a reason to survive the atrocities of the Front. Hundreds of miles away in Berlin the woman, Katharina, marries a photograph of the soldier to qualify for a war widow’s pension. When they meet, to their surprise and wonder, love and passion blossom, and they start to dream of a bright future in a new and better Germany with the Nazis in control. But war tears them apart and they both separately endure the terrible consequences of destruction, humiliation and defeat.

Such is Magee’s skill with language that we can feel the lice crawling in Peter’s scalp, smell his rank odour after weeks of wearing the same sweat-soaked uniform, cringe with Katharina as he begins his courtship of her in this unsavoury state. We hear the venom in the voices of soldiers who hound innocent Jews from their hiding places. We watch in stunned silence as desperate brutalised men commit acts of barbarity against animals and humans alike, as they ransack homes, violate corpses, fight against the treacherous winds howling across the Russian steppes, all on the orders of their leaders safe at home in Berlin.

It’s salutary to learn what it felt like to be German during wartime, bombed by the allies, but rewarded richly for unquestioning loyalty, on the receiving end of the largesse left by the Jews, flagging spirits rallied with falsehoods and bribes. How would we have reacted to the pressures and promises, I wonder?

The men on the battlefields believe they are in hell; wives and mothers left behind in Germany believe their own lives are a form of hell too. It’s all relative. And perhaps there could be no happy outcome in the face of such obscene suffering and futility. How can either ‘side’ really appreciate the atrocities the other has seen and endured. Many were unspeakable. Rehearsing them would only perpetuate the nightmare. Even reading the pared down accounts creates a despairing hollow in the pit of one’s stomach. Nevertheless I was left feeling profoundly sad that a love that had sustained Peter and Katharina through so much pain and horror, in the end could not survive the shame and consequences of an experience completely outside of their control.

This was Audrey Magee’s first novel and it’s a brilliant, sweeping epic of a book that compels the reader to keep turning the pages, to watch helplessly as injustice and hate and human frailty destroy lives and devastate families. It’s far from comfortable reading but I highly recommend it. And how right she was to keep her sentences sparse and simple, give us the bare bones or moral bankruptcy without adornment. This is one occasion where the rule book needed to be consigned to an inaccessible shelf.

 

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Creating a bestseller

I think I’m pretty realistic about my own potential as a novelist but it doesn’t stop me exploring the reasons for other writers’ phenomenal success. So I was intrigued by an article by Debbie Taylor, founder and editorial director of the women writers’ journal Mslexia, in the June/July/August edition. What is it about certain books that appeals to so many people that they become runaway bestsellers, she wanted to know? Ears pricked. Eyes wide open. Brain in gear. Is there any hope …?

Well, apparently researchers have textually analysed 20,000 published novels using a bank of 1000 computers (mind spins into boggle-mode) and come up with some answers. And such is the accuracy of their findings that editors and agents all over the world are apparently sitting up and taking notice. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when ‘of the 55,000 new novels published in the US each year … just 200 reach the New York Times bestseller lists (0.3 percent) and only four will stay there long enough to sell a million copies (0.007 per cent)‘. An algorithm to improve on the odds? What’s not to like?

Ahhh, well … of course, there’s bound to be a strong cohort of discerning professionals in the real book world who’re understandably sniffy about an inanimate piece of kit being a better judge of literary merit than their finely honed, expertly trained, clever human brains. But Debbie T has stirred the pot and tipped in findings from a number of research teams and spread out a number of conclusions for us to taste and test.

OK, so what does make a runaway success? Four main characteristics to start with it transpires:

  1. One signature topic per author
  2. One of the additional topics should be in conflict with the central theme
  3. A recognisably realistic setting/characters
  4. Emotional closeness between the main protagonists.

Hmmm. Nothing revolutionary there, I’d say. Moving on … What about the plot? A variety of aspects can be compelling, it seems:

  1. Emotional roller-coasters for the characters and readers
  2. Plenty of peaks and troughs to maintain suspense
  3. A protagonist with conflicting impulses
  4. Larger than life characters
  5. A central dramatic quest
  6. High life-and-death stakes
  7. Several intimate viewpoints
  8. An interesting setting
  9. A high-concept what-if premise

In short, authors need ‘to think about what readers want‘.

  1. Stimulation.
  2. Entertainment.
  3. Emotional engagement.
  4. Hooks and cliff-hangers. The kind of breathless ups and downs that films and TV series are made of.

And if that isn’t all too depressingly obvious, you don’t even need to be able to string a sentence together elegantly. Staccato sentences, limited vocabulary, predictable plots, can make it to the mega-bestseller list because … and here’s the nub … if it’s to sell in its millions a book has to be read by people who don’t read much as well as by confirmed bookworms. Intellectual readers might sniff at the poor structure and lack of literary brio but as long as they’re addicted they’ll all want more of the same.

It’s a cruel unjust world out there, guys!!

Elsewhere in the same journal, novelist and short-story judge, Deborah Levy gives her personal take on why one writer’s work is more compelling than another: ‘In the end, it is about the mystery of that thing called Voice … it’s about the particularity of the writer’s attention: how she is looking and listening.‘ Yes, indeedy. A slippery something but we like to think we’ll know it when we see it.

Oh, and I must remember to drop a few hints in appropriate quarters … according to this same edition of my literary magazine,  Kate Summerscale‘s publisher sent her ‘an extraordinary profusion of flowers‘ to congratulate her on a new book deal! Hello? VelvetEthics Press are you listening?

Chance would be a fine thing!!

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Martin Luther King: ‘I can do small things in a great way.’

As regular visitors to my blog will know I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books (the single authored ones at least) and I was delighted when her style changed from being rather formulaic to more varied. Her twentieth one, The Storyteller, was an absolute triumph, as I wrote three years ago.

So I simply had to read her latest offering: Small Great Things. I confess, I’m not much enamoured of her title, but she had a very valid reason for choosing it. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr once said: ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way‘, and this book is all about the things Dr King fought for. A fair defence.

As ever Picoult combines a compelling storyline with an important and challenging issue, in this case racial discrimination and prejudice, still, it seems, a major problem in the US. And as usual it’s well-researched, cleverly constructed and both thought-provoking and insightful.

Ruth Jefferson is a law-abiding, hard-working, academically able midwife (known as a labor and delivery nurse in the US) and widowed mum. It’s racial discrimination that brings her before the courts indicted for murder. The opening chapters lead gently into the scenario. When Ruth comes on shift and takes over from a colleague, part of her caseload includes a new mother, Brittany Bauer, and her newborn baby son, Davis. She sets about doing routine tests on the baby boy but his father, Turk, registers a strong objection to a woman of colour touching his child. Ruth’s boss, Marie, who has half her years of experience but has been promoted over her, makes a snap decision to stick a hot-pink Post-it on the baby’s notes: NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT. So when the child collapses in front of her what is Ruth to do? At the time of his death she is one of several people in attendance, nevertheless she is the one the parents blame; the only black member of staff.

Picoult portrays the Bauers as ugly characters, aggressive white supremicists who think nothing of beating up Jews or homosexuals or black people. Humiliating others, hounding them, oppressing anyone who disagrees with their take on the world – that’s their modus operandi. It makes quite shocking reading.

By contrast Ruth and her son are peaceable God-fearing Christians with strong moral values. And her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, is a sympathetic happily married mother-of-one who has devoted her life to helping the downtrodden and under-privileged. I think my editors would advise blurring the lines between good and evil rather more but that’s a literary quibble. And unseen unexpected characteristics do emerge towards the end.

Picoult’s trademark multiple-points-of-view are useful for opening the eyes of the reader to the nuances of language and the many ways in which society can discriminate, and I loved the way Ruth took her lawyer on an ordinary shopping trip to show her what it felt like to be a black woman in a white society. And Kennedy’s own deliberate exposure of herself to the scary experience of being in a minority.

But best of all, this time Picoult adds a lengthy note saying how much she herself was chastened by what she learned while researching and reading for this book. Her career as a novelist has been driven by outrage and a desire to make people aware of injustice, inequality and victims’ stories. This time it’s particularly powerful because it has touched her personally. She was ‘exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined.

‘So what have I learned that is useful? Well, if you are white, like I am, you can’t get rid of the privilege you have, but you can use it for good. Don’t say I don’t even notice race! like it’s a positive thing. Instead, recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross a finish line, and create fair paths to success for everyone that accommodate those differences. Educate yourself. If you think someone’s voice is being ignored, tell others to listen. If your friend makes a racist joke, call him out on it, instead of just going along with it. … I didn’t write this novel because I thought it would be fun or easy. I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know. As Roxana Robinson said, “A writer is like a tuning fork: we respond when we’re struck by something … If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us.”‘ There speaks honest conviction.

And of course, she teaches us in a most engaging way, which is why she is rightfully an ongoing best-seller. Small Great Things is a real page-turner. The author makes no claim to literary pretensions but she does drop in her customary occasional delightful turns of phrase.

The prosecutor is ‘about as jolly as the death penalty‘.

Ruth’s mother was a strict parent: ‘I remember how once, she put out a place setting at the dinner table for my attitude, and she told me, Girl, when you leave the table, that can stay behind.’

The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but think there’s a dash of miracle involved, too.‘ (I’ve delivered countless babies myself and I never lost this sense of wonder and awe either.)

The lawyer asks her junior: ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Twenty-four.’
‘I have sweaters older than you.’

An author who always has something important to say and a way of leaving her characters tucked into your consciousness long after you’ve closed her covers.

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Blue sky thinking

Ten days of wall-to-wall visitors staying chez nous effectively put paid to focused writing, but happily the brain has still been ticking over in the region of the back-burner.

As I strolled in beautiful gardens …

and wandered through castles and mansions …

the plot thickened for my current novel (working title Killing me Softly).

Summary of non-spoiler points to weave in
* The reader doesn’t know who to trust
* More than one character doesn’t get what he/she wants and their situations just get worse and worse
* Authority figures are confused
* Conflict between the good guys further muddies the water

All elements of storytelling that increase tension and keep the reader gripped. Ahhah, itemising them reinforces one salient conclusion: the book is still on track for being a thriller then! Good to clarify that.

I anticipated this book would take some time to write, since I’m researching technique as well as specific subject matter, but maybe not as long as Archie Cotterell‘s novel which came out this month. As his wife said: ‘Everyone says they want to leave the City and write a novel … but I married the idiot who did.’ It has taken 17 years for him to get What Alice Knew published – as long as James Joyce took to write Finnegan’s Wake. I’m devoutly hoping I don’t have to struggle that long! Time will tell.

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Let’s hear it for the book!

It’s May … Christian Aid week again … which means the monarch of all secondhand book sales. Each year the St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in George Street in Edinburgh hosts this fantastic week long event to help address world poverty. Since it started in 1974 the sale has raised in excess of £2m for the charity.

Preparation goes on for weeks beforehand involving over 500 volunteers, local authors bring along signed copies of their work, some people bequeath whole libraries to them, countless anonymous people donate their discard-able tomes. And by the time the doors open to the public, over 100,000 books of every kind fill the sanctuary, balconies and both courtyards, rare and valuable items rubbing shoulders with the run-of-the-mill. 100,000 books! Bliss.

Unusually this year I went along on Saturday’s opening day just half an hour after the doors opened. There was already an excited buzz outside on the pavement …

as well as inside …

Plenty of ‘excuse me’s, jostling elbows/large bags, competitive reaching. Long arms and good vision a definite advantage.

This early on there was good evidence of order with books by the same author gathered into boxes, and I could only dimly conceive of the mammoth task that involved. And yet I still heard one customer asking if they were arranged in alphabetical order! The remarkably tolerant volunteer said apologetically, ‘Sorry. There just wasn’t time for that.’ Bless her. Of course, it was the beginning of the week long effort … and the rain was holding off … and the snell east wind had abated. She could still feel her fingers and toes and didn’t have rain dripping off the polythene covers onto her trousers. But even so.

So the customer must tour the tables, row after row after row of them, grouped under banner signposts to find the titles they’re after. Specialised non-fiction tomes and sets varying in price; most hard-cover novels £2 a pop; paperbacks £1. Amazing bargains. And I’m sure many people cheerfully stump up far more than the asking price.

Inside the stalls range from the obscure to the classical and there are phenomenal bargains to be had. Having just read about the illuminators of ancient Turkey, this intriguing book held my attention.

But despite the serious temptation, I limited my own purchases to one carriable-home-on-the-bus bag which included these novels …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my biggest kick came from standing on the balcony watching all these earnest browsers digging into boxes on every topic you can think of. Wanting, buying, loving books! Yep, the real hold-in-your-hand hard copy book is certainly nowhere near in terminal decline. Half-way round I beat a retreat to the basement cafe to fortify myself for a second wave of literary rummaging and then discovering more lovely and unusual finds in the antiques and collectables department.

Huge congratulations to all who sustain this brilliant endeavour.

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