Hazel McHaffie

child neglect

Hold your Breath

Having written a thriller myself, I’m always now intrigued by their structure and component parts. One attribute is a capacity to make you suspend your breathing, just willing the protagonist to escape whatever horror lies in store. So Hold your Breath seems such an appropriate title for a book in this genre.

This one is by Barnaby Walter who dives into the disturbing world of mental illness – a world where things spin out of control, and people are scarily unpredictable. One key ‘character’ in this tale is the setting: a spooky forest, backdrop to shady night-time happenings.

Dark elements of child neglect and exorcism and witchcraft and disordered minds pile on the shivers. With the main action removed from the safety and scrutiny of suburban civilisation, events feel even more sinister, and the truth more elusive.

We know from early on that something dreadful happens, but so much is unknown and unknowable or half-understood because it’s synthesised through the young impressionable mind of the protagonist, Kitty Carlson. Adults are concealing the truth from her; she herself witnesses incomprehensible behaviours; we cannot be sure where fantasy ends and grown-up reality begins. As her mother’s mental health regresses we feel the approach of something dreadful, we hold our breath, fearful as to what form it will take.

Kitty is only 10 when the tragedy happens, but she’s already traumatised beyond her years. She knows that her family has secrets; they’ve always been different. It’s why her father took them to live in the woods during the half term holiday. It’s why unmentionable things are done in the haunted rental house, and why she’s sent to wander alone amongst the trees when the Catholic Father arrives.

As a young child she just buries her experiences.
She knows¬† …
that her mother ‘gets upset’ and ‘makes scenes’, that her paintings have become disturbing, that she says and does violent things, that she needs to be handled with care, that she needs psychiatric help.
She knows …
that her father has become more like a dictatorial school teacher than a loving parent, that he is liable to ‘flamin’ rages’, that he is involved with another woman.
She knows …
that she herself is mesmerised by small living creatures, that she resents having her innocent enquiries deflected, that she has learned early on to be self-sufficient, that she is a loner.

It’s only when she grows up that she starts to ask the most difficult questions, and delve into painful memories. The past has been buried for a reason. Eventually she’s driven to write a book, crafting something definite, something physical, out of her dreams, her nightmares, her memories. ‘It was probably the fusion of catharsis and hate that did it. Working through my issues by putting them onto the page, only to shoot them through with a strong dose of anger and resentment.’ She has a story crying out to be told.

Although Kitty insists it’s fictional, there’s enough fact in it to identify people, places and events, and the book triggers powerful reactions. Her father and his new wife are incensed by the revelations. Her stepmother takes actions that have massive consequences. And 33 years after the tragedy, Kitty is summonsed to Newcastle to a police station. She is under caution, not yet arrest. But what she has to say could change all that.

Walter captures the perspective of a young girl sufficiently authentically for me to be taken in. I believed her account of what happened … the narrative that found expression in Kitty’s book. Writing it was ‘an act of self-therapy’; it blows demons right out into open view. Kitty herself knows she couldn’t cope with the attention a true-to-life memoir would attract, but nor can she relinquish her personal take on events and injustices. As a young girl she attributed human emotions to spiders and beetles; her mind has been altered by the things she’s seen in her childhood, by the emotions she’s suppressed. Small wonder that her own behaviours and reactions fall outside the box of normality.

The ending is rather too neat for my personal taste, but I was relieved that Kitty survived the re-living of her past. I cared about the child turned woman, and that’s another key element in the success of this book.

 

 

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