As I indicated last week, it’s an ongoing preoccupation with me – will readers want to immerse themselves in dark, melancholic tales? The issues I tackle all have this side to them, and each time I have to work hard at achieving a healthy balance; each time I worry: have I got it right?
Take Right to Die. For those of you who haven’t read it, it tells the story of a young man, Adam, who develops Motor Neurone Disease when he’s only 38. He knows he will die within a couple of years or so. Yep, plenty of scope for low spirits there, and I confess I still can’t read it without weeping myself. But then, I know Adam intimately. I lived with him for several years, and his spirit lingers with me. It’s personal.
So it was tremendously warming last Thursday to be invited to put in a guest appearance at a book club, and hear that, though they feared the worst, the members didn’t find the book at all depressing. They were so generous about it, and we had a wonderfully uplifting evening analysing why not, and teasing out the components of a book that ensure a good read. Yes, we did discuss the pros and cons of assisted dying along the way, but also what made Adam warm to the colourful Jamaican physio Lydia, but not the texbook perfect Veronique. Do exemplary GPs like Hugo Curtis really exist? Why did the cat have to die? What was really going on in that closed room between the GP and his patient? Do we smell romance between two of the principle characters? Very confirming. And such fun. I salute you, ladies! (Apologies for the poor quality photo – it doesn’t do you justice.)
This got me thinking about other books of a similar complexion. You know the kind of thing: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin; Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes; Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones et al. And no, those novels didn’t depress me either. Why not? Because the macabre subjects (teenage massacres, rape and murder) were handled so skilfully, the stories so well told. I was challenged but not crushed.
Which brings me to Jeffrey Eugenides. I read and loved his wonderful book on hermaphroditism, Middlesex, ages ago. So when I saw his earlier novel, The Virgin Suicides, I snapped it up. This week it rose to the top of my pile and I devoured it in two sittings.
It’s not in the same league as Middlesex, but still worth reading. Basically it tells the story of the five adolescent Lisbon sisters who all commit suicide. Dark material? Positively ink black. The girls grow up in an eccentric and isolated environment. They’ve become an object of fascination to the local boys who watch them from various vantage points, and even on one memorable occasion, entice four of them out a joint date – the only one they were ever allowed. The narrator is one of these lads who, now grown up, looks back at the unfolding saga as if he’s compiling evidence for what happened, and searching for a plausible explanation.
Hmm. Teenage suicide, self harming – definitely not cheery bedtime reading, I think we’d all agree, so why is it so entertaining? Well, the tone, the style of writing, the irony, the humour of each situation, bring a light touch that seems to take the sting out of the essential tragedy, diverting attention and setting a broader canvas against which the lives of these doomed girls are played. Hard to describe so I’ll try to illustrate what I mean.
We aren’t worrying all the time about terrible happenings jumping out at us just as we start to get attached to the characters. Come to think of it, I didn’t form an attachment to any of them. We know from the outset that they will all die as you can see from the opening sentence.
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
And we also know early on that we are in sure hands. From Eugenides’ account of the girls’ intentions:
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note … ‘Obviously, Doctor,’ she said, ‘you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’
… and even of the deed itself:
Through a side window we could see Mr Lisbon standing in the shrubbery. When we came out the front door we saw that he was holding Cecilia, one hand under her neck and the other under her knees. He was trying to lift her off the spike that had punctured her left breast, traveled through her inexplicable heart, separated two vertebrae without shattering either, and come out her back, ripping the dress and finding air again. The spike had gone through so fast there was no blood on it. It was perfectly clean and Cecilia merely seemed balanced on the pole like a gymnast. The fluttering wedding dress added to this circusy effect. Mr Lisbon kept trying to lift her off, gently, but even in our ignorance we knew it was hopeless and that despite Cecilia’s open eyes and the way her mouth kept contracting like that of a fish on a stringer it was just nerves and she had succeeded, on the second try, in hurling herself out of the world.
… and the funeral:
Only the family filed past the coffin. First the girls walked past, each dazed and expressionless, and, later, people said we should have known by their faces. ‘It was like they were giving her a wink,’ Mrs Carruthers said. ‘They should have been bawling, but what did they do? Up to the coffin, peek in, and away. Why didn’t we see it?’ Curt Van Osdol, the only kid at the Funeral Home, said he would have copped a last feel, right there in front of the priest and everybody, if only we had been there to appreciate it. After the girls passed by, Mrs Lisbon, on her husband’s arm, took ten stricken steps to dangle her weak head over Cecilia’s face, rouged for the first and last time ever. ‘Look at her nails,’ Mr Burton thought he heard her say. ‘Couldn’t they do something about her nails?’ And then Mr Lisbon replied: ‘They’ll grow on. Fingernails keep growing. She can’t bite them now, dear.’
This concentration on seemingly unconnected and disproportionately trivial points fits with the narrator’s original naive understanding of what was really happening. The tragedy of five teenage suicides in one family, of the subsequent disintegration, is subsumed under a welter of information about swarms of fish flies, and cats yowling, and unearthly smells, and protests about tree felling, and boys trying to glimpse girls in various states of undress – the preoccupations of adolescent youths. In this case a very clever tactic for counter balancing the horror of the Lisbon tragedies. The more adult understanding that comes from later interviews with neighbours, teachers, parents; the piecing together of exhibits which make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible, is titrated in as necessary in order to create a cohesive picture of what was really going on.
Reading this, analysing it, was like a mini master class for me. Would that I had this kind of skill. It also made me see that dark topics need not be off limits.
Time to return to the topic of that sticker I mentioned a few weeks ago, as seen on The Midwife’s Confession: ‘As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back.’ Similar to the one on my own latest novel: ‘If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie.’ Seeming even more relevant now because at my book launch last week I was introduced as ‘Scotland’s Jodi Picoult’!
Question is: Is the comparison a good or not so good idea?
I confess I’ve only just discovered Diane Chamberlain, the author in question. My daughter gave me one of her books for Christmas, and I bought a second one on the strength of the blurb on the cover. I read them both in four days during the Christmas holiday break.
The resemblance is obvious from the outset – before you even open the book. The pretty feminine covers. The personal challenge: ‘A lie will save one family, the truth will destroy another. Which would you choose?‘ Both very Jodi Picoult.
So what about inside? Was this author as good? Would I be due a refund? Should I be glad or sad that my own latest book has a similar slogan?
Tara, Emerson and Noelle are close friends, so the two younger girls are devastated when Noelle is found dead after taking an overdose of pills. But as they sort her possessions and talk to other people, facts come to light which show them that the Noelle they knew was a fiction.
When they unearth a letter revealing a hideous secret, they are torn by indecision. If they tell the truth it would destroy a family; but by maintaining the lie they would be perpetuating the grief of another. Add to this a twelve year old with recurring leukaemia loaded with steroids and fighting for her life; a dead baby; surrogate pregnancies; and you have a flavour of the intense emotional and psychological undertones of this story.
The multiple first person voices style is very Picoultesque, but there the similarities end. No court scenes or legal ding-dongs. No stereotyping. No homespun philosophising. Indeed, Chamberlain’s psychology is altogether much more convincing and less contrived than Picoult’s. Not surprisingly perhaps since she’s a trained psychotherapist.
So what of the second of her books that I read? Breaking the Silence is written very differently. All in the third person too. Instantly I feel a lift of spirits. Here’s an author who rings the changes. Who’s not formulaic or predictable. No rut in sight. My kind of gal.
The story weaves between the present for astronomer, Laura Brandon, and her daughter, Emma, and the past life of former nurse, Sarah Tolley, now an old lady with Alzheimer’s.
Moments before his death, Laura’s father makes her promise to visit Sarah, who’s in a retirement complex, but whom she’s never even heard of before. As a consequence of her doing so, however, Laura’s husband commits suicide. Her five year old daughter, Emma, witnesses the shooting and now refuses to talk and is clearly terrified of men. On the advice of a child therapist, Laura contacts Emma’s biological father, Dylan Geer, a hot air balloonist, who was unaware of her existence but becomes mesmerised by this mute child.
But as this father-daughter relationship blossoms, Laura becomes increasingly obsessed by the stories emerging from Sarah’s fading memory. She starts to unravel a tale of love, despair and a terrible evil that links them all.
Chamberlain’s training and experience in psychology have given her a genuine understanding of how people tick, how relationships work, helping to authenticate the actions and reactions of her characters. They ring true. Having had to observe professional confidences herself (like me), I think she understands the capacity of some people in positions of trust to bear a hefty burden of secrets, and the inability of others to do so. Lies and deceptions play a large part in both books.
Chamberlain says of her novels that they are ‘part suspense, part mystery, part romance and one hundred percent family drama.’ A fair assessment. The suspense and mystery elements keep the pages turning effortlessly. I was particularly gripped by the stories of the CIA government approved mind-control experiments that took place in the 50s and 60s in psychiatric hospitals in the US, about which I’d heard but never understood in this intensely moving way before. No wonder this was the inspiration for Breaking the Silence. Very clever.
But I must confess the coincidences in both books stretched my credulity somewhat, especially in The Midwife’s Confession. OK, they tidied up the story lines but they lacked plausibility for me.
So, will I be reading more Chamberlain? Probably. (And keeping my fingers crossed that she doesn’t pall like Picoult.) Will I be claiming a refund? Happily, no.
What then of that controversial sticker: did it help or hinder? Well, it meant the book caught in my antennae initially, which was good. Although for anyone who really doesn’t care for Picoult, it could have had an unwarrantedly negative impact. So swings and roundabouts there maybe. It also made me compare the two authors throughout, which had pluses and minuses for Chamberlain. But for me overall Chamberlain came out of it well.
And for Saving Sebastian? At the moment the jury’s still out. Time will tell. And your input … please!
It’s a bit like buses. After waiting ages for a book to come out, two come out in one week! Yes, Saving Sebastian is actually in my hand. Looking beautiful too. A rousing cheer for Tom Bee the cover designer.
Dr Justin Blaydon-Green has his hands full. Three teenage daughters at home, one of whom is mixing in some dubious circles. A brilliant colleague at work antagonising the staff in his lab and dabbling in dangerous experiments. A cheery technician in the lab constantly quoting Oscar Wilde. A Nigerian couple, treated for infertility nine months ago, who’ve just given birth to twins, one of whom can’t possibly be their biological child. And now a beautiful young woman appealing for help to save her four year old son dying from a rare blood disorder. Just how far is Justin prepared to go before his world disintegrates?
Read all about it!
My publisher decided to give this book a sticker saying If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie. (Hmmm.) And a challenging strapline: How far would you go to save the life of your child? I’ve just finished reading two other books from the States which adopt a similar tactic (more of that in a later blog), so my mind has been toying with the implications. But I’d love feedback from you as to whether it helps or hinders in my case. You know about my personal ambivalence when it comes to Picoult.
The second book is an extremely limited print run: Professor Devine’s Emporium.
No Amazon links for this one! Thanks to DJ burning many candles into the night, the children’s story was ready for our self-imposed deadline, the first family birthday of 2012 – today! Happy Birthday, Lauren!
It runs to 119 pages and includes 151 pictures, so it’s a totally different production from the 355 pages with no pictures of Saving Sebastian. But I’m just as delighted to see it completed. And I know this one will be well received by every single person who gets a copy!
As you know I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. But I confess I had a bit of a revival of interest when I read House Rules (reviewed on this blog back in February). Super book about autism.
So, when I was deciding which books to sample on the Kindle – just to check whether I really really did want to leap into the twenty-first century – one of the first on my list was Sing you Home. I read it ages ago but it’s taken me till now to get around to posting my comments. Which probably says a lot about my rating of the book.
The story revolves around Zoe and Max Baxter whose marriage is on the rocks after a number of failed attempts to have a baby. (Yeah, yeah, I know. I do bang on about these issues.) Anyway, Zoe finds comfort in Vanessa whose work as a school counsellor overlaps with her own music therapy. They go on to ‘marry’ and decide they want children.
Zoe already has frozen embryos left over from her IVF with Max. Using them seems like a no-brainer. But Max is now a born-again religious zealot, vigorously opposed to same sex unions, and he fights Zoe’s claims through the courts.
OK, some of the issues are my territory but that doesn’t mean I’m bound to like books on these subjects. Indeed, I can be super critical of the way authors deal with medicine and ethics. So, what was my verdict on Sing you Home? Hmm.
It’s the usual Picoult formula:
Major social issues
Multiple voices speaking in the first person.
Lots of amateur psychology.
Big social issues.
A courtroom drama
It has one unique feature:
Accompanying songs, the lyrics of which were composed by Picoult herself. An interesting ‘gimmick’, entirely fitting with the story line about a music therapist who reaches troubled people through songs.
A few amusing/thoughtful quotes to make you smile/wonder:
Max on the effect of infertility on their marriage
‘Our sex life had become like Thanksgiving dinner with a dysfunctional family – something you have to show up for, even though you’re not really having a good time … want had become need and then obsession … There was no room in my marriage for me anymore, except as genetic material.’
Vanessa on society’s attitude to homosexuality
‘I remember my mother telling me that, when she was a little girl in Catholic school, the nuns used to hit her left hand every time she wrote with it. Nowadays, if a teacher did that, she’d probably be arrested for child abuse. The optimist in me wants to believe sexuality will eventually become like handwriting: there’s no right way and wrong way to do it. We’re all just wired differently.
It’s also worth noting that, when you meet someone, you never bother to ask if he’s right- or left-handed.
After all: Does it really matter to anyone other than the person holding the pen?’
Zoe’s on school canteen
‘It looks like every other school cafeteria I’ve ever seen – a life-size petri dish breeding social discontent, students sorting themselves into individual genuses: the Popular Kids, the Geeks, the Jocks, The Emos.’
Vanessa’s on court protocol
‘The clerk scrambles forward to make his announcement as Judge O’Neill strides off the bench, so that we all rise, too, like some magnetic after-effect of his anger.’
The insights into what music therapy can achieve with the depressed, the dying, the dementing.
The sympathetic and empathetic principal female characters.
The stereotypical portrayal of bigoted right-wing Christianity.
The pseudo-psychology everybody seems to indulge in.
The occasional misuse of medical terms (or maybe it’s simply American shorthand).
The anomalies in the formatting that crept in during conversion.
So, a mixed bag. Not a patch on House Rules.
Oh, just before I go, if you’re weighed down by the stress of Christmas preparations, or feeling jaded by lack of daylight hours, or in anyway down in the dumps, I recommend you go to dovergreyreader‘s post for Saturday December 10. It’s called Security knitting alert …start casting on everyone and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.
I wonder how many of you enjoy a book that tackles one of life’s big issues. The kind that makes you ask, ‘What would I have done in that situation?‘ Not everyone does, I know. Some people tell me they’re looking for escape from life’s challenges, they don’t want their leisure hours to be troubled by injustice or suffering or tragic choices. Ergo: ‘Sorry, but I won’t be reading your novels any time soon!’
But me, I like something gritty, something that makes me stop and think. Dark and difficult sucks me in. And I prefer to take my time considering my response to delicate or unexpected situations, rather than risk crashing in with hob-nailed boots. Comes from years spent walking alongside families struggling with tragedy and loss, I guess. Or maybe I’m just a slow thinker.
I’ve had another good wallow in just such a book recently – a novel.
I have a kind of love-hate relationship with author Jodi Picoult. Cons? Her formulaic style; and the way she endows all her characters with the capacity for philosophising and uttering wise insights. Pros? The readable way she deals with big questions. Having put her on one side for a long time now, I came to her latest, House Rules, with a fresher mind. And this time the subject matter eclipsed the irritating aspects, so I enjoyed it much more than the last few she’s written.
Jacob Hunt is eighteen. He’s obsessed with crime, and can recite laws and forensic facts verbatim. He can’t abide the colour orange. He lives by fixed rules. He has Asperger’s. Although he’s high-functioning, he finds it impossible to make friends. But there’s one exception: a young student, Jess Ogilvy, who’s paid to teach him social skills. Jess understands him, she has time for him … until a new boyfriend starts to monopolise her time and thoughts. Jacob is not a happy bunny.
But then, Jess is found dead. The finger points at Jacob. The evidence is overwhelming.
His mother, Emma, is torn between love for her son and a desire for justice to prevail. She’s the one who calls the police. She’s the one who fights for a fair trial that accommodates Jacob’s special needs. But she’s all too conscious that the symptoms of Asperger’s – the tics, the inappropriate actions and expressions, the lack of eye-contact – can all be interpreted as evidence of guilt.
Emma’s other son, Theo, is just fourteen and harbouring his own secrets and problems. Her ex-husband, Henry, reappears unexpectedly, but now she sees warning signs in him too. Her employer reckons the mother of a murderer can’t be a suitable person to continue writing an agony column for her publication.
Throw in a novice lawyer, a sensitive police officer, and a singularly unattractive boyfriend, and you have the usual melting pot for one of Picoult’s classic protracted legal wrangles.
But what shines through this fiction is the effect of Asperger’s, not only on the person who bears the diagnosis, but also on his family, on everyone he comes into close contact with. I do personally know a number of people on the autistic spectrum and I thought I was reasonably understanding, but this book gave me much better insights into the world they inhabit – rather like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time did when that came out in 2003. Or the Dustin Hoffman film, Rain Man.
I sincerely hope this book will make a difference in real lives. And I salute Picoult for her ability to combine a gripping narrative with a big issue – a delicate balance I constantly struggle to achieve.
Oh, and before I go, I must just share a delightful view with you. I sneaked time out from editing this week and visited Cambo estate near St Andrews which is famous for its snowdrop walk. Even on a foggy, muddy day, fantastic.
Phew! That’s the Book Festival over for another year. And I confess I’ll be quite glad to stop this gallivanting into town for performances and parties at all hours.
But I’ve had some interesting experiences, and learned a thing or two about how to seduce an audience. (I come to these events with two agendas: what can I learn about this author and this book? And what tips can I take away for my own appearances at literary functions?)
The Festival brings in some cracking chairmen. Journalist, Ruth Wishart is one of my favourites and she’s a whizz at getting the best out of authors whilst bringing her own style of wit and banter to the event. She was chairing for Lionel Shriver this time, so I knew we were in safe hands.
Lionel Shriver. Hmm. In the flesh, and talking about her personal experience of losing a dear friend to cancer, she seemed somehow more fragile and vulnerable than I imagined from her writing. And she spent a fair bit of time assuring everyone that her latest book, So Much for That, dealing with disease and death, is ‘fun’, and that her unlikable characters are ‘fun’, and that spending her working life writing about objectionable people is ‘fun’. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. ‘Fun’ certainly isn’t the word that I’d apply to her books myself.
Nevertheless, I loved We Need to Talk about Kevin; dark, macabre even, but brilliantly conceived and executed. It’s written in the form of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, about their teenage son, Kevin, who has committed a series of gruesome murders. She’s a wonderfully flawed character, and positively ruthless in exposing her own doubts and failings. Her musings explore the origins of evil, the responsibility of parenthood, and the old nurture-nature debate. And then there’s the brilliant twist to the tale at the end – sent shivers up my spine. A clever book, both gripping and thought-provoking, and a very worthy prizewinner. It launched Shriver’s career.
But before I went to hear her I decided to read something else she’d written: Double Fault. What a disappointment. In fact, it fell squarely into the category of ‘a real slog’; only my obsessive tendencies made me persist with it. It’s a story about a young couple whose lives are ruled by tennis, and the effect of success and failure on their characters and relationships. Admittedly, I was starting it on a train with a little girl sitting beside me playing an electronic game with the sound up. (Sigh. Yes, in the Quiet Zone. Where else? Don’t get me going on that subject. But the kiddie had just hopped off the lap of her disabled mother slumped in her wheelchair in the space opposite. Only a heart of stone would have deprived that little soul of a few hours of innocent pleasure.) But I duly gave Double Fault a fairer crack of the whip by reading more on the return journey with fingers in my ears, and then at home in the absolute silence of my study. It didn’t improve.
But it got me thinking. Very few authors can be brilliant all of the time; or appeal to all readers all of the time. How much does a reader persevere once he/she becomes uninspired? Do I give people a second … or third … or more chance? Well, in my case I guess it varies.
I’ve read loads of Jodi Picoult’s books because she writes about ethical dilemmas: My Sister’s Keeper; Nineteen Minutes, Plain Truth, The Pact, Handle with Care, etc. My kind of subject matter. Though I do occasionally get a bit Picoulted-out, (well, her writing is rather formulaic, isn’t it?) and some books haven’t really lit my fuse, I’ve remained loyal, and even travelled to Glasgow to see this phenomenon, who produces bestsellers so prolifically, in the flesh. But then I read one of her earlier works – before she hit her stride: Songs of the Humpback Whale. It left me feeling very jaded. Another hard slog. So why do I give her another chance? Because I’ve enjoyed lots of her work, I admire what she’s trying to do in opening up important debates, and I know she’s not a one-book wonder.
Audrey Niffenegger’s another phenomenon. She’s both a visual artist and a writer – so talented you’re not sure whether to envy or dislike her on sight. She hit the headlines big time with her debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife … sickening, eh? But seriously, I still stand in awe of her ability to juggle all those time-frames so expertly. So I came to Her Fearful Symmetry with high expectations. Oh dear, oh dear. It’s one of the least appealing books I’ve ever read. Two dimensional, static and totally unbelievable. But in Niffenenegger’s case, I’m in no hurry to return. It feels like she’s forfeited my loyalty.
OK, I know that I, more than most, ought to be more forgiving. After all, I don’t want people to be too hasty to dismiss my work if they find one story that doesn’t appeal. Sigh. It’s all so subjective, isn’t it? But the reality is, there are just too many books out there; we can all afford to be fickle fans. Which leads me to make a confession … I’ll tell you next time.
I love acers – or maple trees. We have quite a number in our garden, including until this year a whopper at the front of the house.
So it was troubling when this one started to show signs of unhappiness about three years ago. It energetically sprouted lovely fresh growth in the spring, but then leaves shrivelled prematurely, whole branches eventually gave up the unequal struggle.
We treated it lovingly with judicious pruning, extra nourishment. Diagnosis? Apparently it’s acquired a fungus. Something to do with blue rings …?
Anyway, this spring (well, what appeared to be spring at the time) it went bananas, new shoots appearing in abundance everywhere … except along the latest branches to die off. It was sending out such a powerful message of hope that we decided to give it one last chance. It had the pruning of its life!
And at the moment it’s looking fabulous. Fingers crossed …
Why am I talking about trees in a blog predominantly about ethics and writing? Answer: because I’m also pruning drastically at the computer. With the recent advice of my editor for Remember Remember – Cut! Cut! Cut! – still reverberating in my ears I’m now ruthlessly shortening the next book too. This one’s about saviour siblings – currently called Saving Sebastian. (I always need a working title.) It’s been written for ages and had several edits before now but this time … it’s like the maple, time for radical treatment.
But I’m attached to this text, as I am to the maple. If I stick at it too long I just go along with the storyline and forget the red pen. Short brutal stints are the order of the day. In between, Dr Harold Klawans’ book, Newton’s Madness, is providing therapy with its fantastic accounts of patients with neurological disorders; short self-contained chapters which fit in nicely. Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton suffered from bouts of madness caused by mercury poisoning? Or that there’s a big question mark over Creutzfeldt’s role in the identification of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease? Or that bubonic plague ravaged Italy sixteen times during the 12th to the 14th Centuries? You do now! A fascinating read.
And by way of very light relief … ahah! I found a copy of Jodi Picoult’s book, Handle with Care, in the Christian Aid Book Sale I told you about last week. It’s about a family suing for the wrongful birth of a child suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease). So I’m reading that to remind me of how successful some people can be with writing books about ethical dilemmas.
‘The worst floods in a thousand years …’ ‘… biblical proportions …’ My heart goes out to those poor souls in areas devastated by the torrential rains of the last week. Lives lost, livelihoods in tatters, cherished possessions washed away, homes not only uninhabitable but uninsurable, unsellable … misery writ large. Puts the inconvenience of creeping plaster dust from the second phase of our restoration work into perspective, doesn’t it? … ie. off the scale.
Any trivial activity I report has to be seen against this context, but I aim to divert not depress. So I dare to tell you of a deluge of a different sort. A positive tsunami indeed.
Of film viewing, no less.
Now, you need to know that I’m not normally a cinema-goer, (all dates back to a puritanical upbringing) so going to a 3-day film festival is tantamount to an orgy! I feel the urge to hasten to an explanation.
It was a Biomedical Ethics Film Festival. And this year it took the subject of eugenics as it’s theme. Full title – Eugenics: Science Fiction or Future Reality? I take my hat off to The Scottish Council on Human Bioethics (in conjunction with the ESRC Genomics Network, the British Science Association and the Filmhouse). They’re trying to do with films – but in a much bigger and bolder way – what I’m trying to do with my novels, viz. use a form of entertainment and enjoyment to put across thought-provoking material about the effects of modern technology and medical knowledge. And where I have questions for discussion on my website, they had a panel of experts to comment after each session. Immediate and there!
Anyway, I was especially interested in the audience’s remarks. It was like hearing reaction to what I do but at one step removed, in a way. One comment in particular made me sit up … feel hackles rising … spring to the defensive position. We’d just watched My Sister’s Keeper, about a girl who was selected to be a source of stem cells for her sick sister who has leukaemia: a saviour sibling. Now, I should add that the book of the same name, by Jodie Picoult, is far more detailed and finely nuanced than the film, but even so, watching the partial story develop is harrowing enough.
Picture the scene, then. We’ve all just snivelled through the slow dying of a teenager. Heads are down, white tissues smearing the darkness. The credits roll, shoulders are braced. The panel take their places in subdued silence. I am on the edge of my seat: having written a novel myself on this subject, Saving Sebastian, (due to be published next after Remember Remember), my antennae are fully extended.
‘This film is not about ethics; it’s about family relationships,’ says a voice from the audience. Hello? Believe me, I had to anchor my shoes to the floor! But that comment was a salutary reminder to me of the very narrow view of ethics lots of people have. Of course, in reality, the mother’s desperate need to keep her child alive, the daughter’s resentment, the brother’s divided loyalties, the father’s helplessness … all these things are part of the ethical decision: how far should we go? What’s right for our family? What’s right for society?
I’ve had to work at being a novelist, you know. Years as a University researcher honed my obsession with accuracy and detail. Teasing out fine nuances of ethical distinctions, being totally even-handed, not leaving anything out … all these inclinations have had to be suppressed to some extent to allow the story, the characters, to predominate in my novels, not the issues. So I know I’m super-sensitive on this point. The art of engaging hearts as well as minds is in making the characters live, giving them scope to make their own decisions based on their unique histories, values, beliefs, circumstances. Giving the reader/viewer space to come to their own conclusions.
Hmmm …. ahhah … OK, I take it back. It’s a compliment if someone doesn’t see the hidden agenda. If they say, ‘This story isn’t about ethics …’
I’m glad I didn’t wax defensive in public. I did, it must be admitted, defend the superiority of the book, but otherwise I contented myself with slotting another aphorism into my collection: you’re never going to please all of the people all of the time. Live with it; don’t fight it.
But then yesterday, on the main news, there’s all this hype about a new film for release in January: The Lovely Bones. I read the book when it first came out. It’s about a teenage girl who’s raped and murdered, and it focuses on her reflections in the afterlife. Now here’s the Prince of Wales pictured at the royal showing … the actors … the producer … even glimpses of heaven!! The book sold in its millions around the world they trumpet. (And incidentally appeared in this month’s Telegraph list of ‘100 books that defined the decade’.) But there isn’t one single mention of the brilliant author: Alice Sebbold. Come on! It was all her idea!
OK, we may need to efface ourselves in order to create good fiction, but let’s not be obliterated entirely!