Hazel McHaffie

book clubs

Children – ill, abandoned, adopted, murdered, massacred

‘It’s not fair!’

How often have we all heard that lament? Especially from children. If a sibling gets a bigger slice of cake; if a schoolmate gets them into trouble; if a parent doesn’t humour them … But there can surely be few scenarios more legitimately unjust than a baby having cancer.

Olivia Stanca who died this past week in a rooftop hospital garden in London after her life support machine was switched off, was born with adrenal cancer. How cruel, how unfair, is that? It spread to her liver. She was just one year old when she died.

In her short life she had survived two rounds of chemotherapy but was very vulnerable to infections. Having pulled out all the stops, in the end the medical staff at Great Ormond Street regretfully said there was nothing more they could do for her. Olivia’s story reached the papers only because her parents fought against medical opinion for her to be kept alive, desperately wanting to hang on to their little girl, but eventually this past week even they bravely conceded that it was simply not possible. As their lawyer said, there are no winners in this tragic scenario. Indeed.

But thinking about this little family and all they’ve endured made me reflect on books I’ve read recently about children. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on three of them as my little tribute to all families everywhere, like the Stancas, who are grieving today. Three books moreover by the same author, herself a mum, which I read consecutively – a useful way of getting a feel for a particular person’s writing … if you don’t get too jaded by the third one, that is!

Gudenkauf novelsIn previous posts I’ve shared with you my enjoyment of several writers who tackle challenging issues similar to the ones I dabble in – Jodi Picoult, Diane Chamberlain, Lisa Genova. This time it’s Heather Gudenkauf who gets the ‘fans of Jodi Picoult will devour this‘ sticker. She’s a classroom teacher living in Iowa, who tucks writing novels into free moments between work life and bringing up three children of her own. Already I’m impressed.

These Things Hidden tells the story of three girls bound together by circumstance and horror, of a prison sentence, of a childless couple whose lives are transformed when a baby is abandoned in a fire station and becomes theirs to adopt. These Things HiddenParental love swells as little Joshua grows up, overcomes his phobias and tantrums, and takes his place in the swell of children starting school.  But all is not what it seems. Gradually a back history emerges … mental instability, fractured relationships, murder and intrigue … that keeps the pages turning from beginning to end and the brain whirring. What makes a good parent? How much should any one person be asked to sacrifice for their nearest and dearest?

A school shooting forms the core of One Breath Away (definitely shades of Jodi P here!)  Parents are waiting at the gates in agony, news of what’s going on inside patchy and conflicting – parents with unresolved issues, parents who didn’t say proper goodbyes, who are not dressed for publicity. And then – horrors – there’s the mother who thinks the gunman could be her son. Inside, the lone gunman is holding a classroom full of 8-year-olds at gunpoint. One Breath AwayIntrepid teacher, Mrs Oliver, tries to bargain with him: if she correctly guesses why he is there will he let the children go free? ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘and for each wrong answer I get to shoot one.‘ But the blame, the gunman says, will lie not with the teacher but with a single police officer: ‘you get to live with the knowledge that the death of these kids and their teacher is all because of you.‘ Gudenkauf maintains the suspense through short sharp chapters to the very end. We’re left wondering how such tragedies can happen. How would we respond if our child/grandchild was held hostage by a madman? How would we weigh the lives of other people’s children against the welfare of our own families? It’s a bit like the question: should we ever pay ransoms to terrorists? Would you pay up if your son/daughter was the one held hostage? … isn’t it?

In The Weight of Silence two six year old girls go missing. One of them, Callie, has selective mutism, Petra is her best friend and her voice. Her mother Toni grows increasingly frustrated … and scared. The Weight of SilenceSuspicion mounts. Her brutal husband seems to be missing; the man she has loved since childhood is behaving oddly; her son is convinced his sister is in the woods; there are two sets of footprints in newly raked soil but one of them is made by a man’s boot. The whole neighbourhood is on the alert. And then suddenly mute Callie rushes out of the trees, alone, and utters just one word, a word that conjures up a scenario too appalling to contemplate. Just how far would any of us go to protect our families? How loyal would you be to your abusive partner?  Who would you believe?

As with all Jodi Picoult lookalikes, Gudenkauf’s novels are the staple diet of book clubs. Meaty topics, haunting questions, a tense plot, literary challenges. Plenty to get your teeth into. But it’s all just fiction. The last thought must be with real live parents who really are enduring loss or life-or-death struggles with their children. My heart goes out to them.

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To write or not to write? that is the question

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. Right to DieFor 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.

the bookclub ladiesSo 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. MiddlesexI 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.

 

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Healthy criticism

OK, OK, OK. Enough is enough.

It was pretty to start with, incredible after a few days, but a major inconvenience now. Huge mounds of snow being shovelled out of the way day after day; access to roads constantly in question;
transport by any means chaotic; enormous icicles an ongoing risk to life and limb and no sign of a cessation of hostilities as yet.

(SORRY: my lovely pictures of the snow have been accidentally deleted)

Most things I had in the diary have been cancelled or postponed, but one group of hardy women decided they wouldn’t be deterred by a few treacherous pavements or freezing temperatures. No, indeed, the show would go on. We’re British! So in the darkness of early evening on Thursday I found myself battling in from the wild wastes of the country into the city, courtesy of my kindly son-in-law-chauffeur, to make a guest appearance at a book club.

Wow! What an impressively informed and articulate group of ladies. And what a treat to listen to a lively discussion about Alzheimer’s, Remember Rememberand my book, Remember Remember, first hand. I had previously sent a message to say they shouldn’t hold back on the criticism; I’d welcome good healthy challenge, but I suspect they were all too polite and kind to risk hurting my feelings. Yes, they asked a lot of questions, and told some moving personal stories, but they said only gracious things about the book.

So I still don’t know what they really thought. Which is a pity. I’d be much more convinced I was getting the truth if I heard ‘I really didn’t like …’ or ‘I hated …’ or ‘I’m not sure why you did …’ But unqualified flattery leaves me uneasy. No book is perfect – certainly not mine. So please, if you’ve read any of my novels and you haven’t posted a review on Amazon or contacted me with constructive criticism, consider doing so (it’s easy via my website – one click and you’re there). And make it honest. (No need to reduce me to total ribbons!) It really does help to know how I could improve my writing. I can’t please all of the people, all the time, but I can listen and learn.

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