Hazel McHaffie

Covid-19

Girl, Woman, Other

Did you know that last Thursday was ‘Super Thursday‘? – that day in the literary calendar when there’s a bonanza release of new books in time for Christmas. And this year, because of Covid-19 significantly delaying publication for authors across the board, as many as 600 new titles were released in 24 hours. 600! In one day!! SIX HUNDRED!! What hope is there for mid-or-below-mid-listers to be even noticed, huh? About as much as for a youngster with three C-grades-on-the-basis-of-teacher-assessment getting into Oxbridge, I’d say.

Seemed like a good week to home in on one title that has made the grade, big time: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which I mentioned in my post two weeks ago – co-winning the Booker Prize with Margaret Attwood‘s The Testaments. Evaristo is the first black woman ever to achieve this distinction, and she comes across at interview as a bundle of energy and zeal and determination. Positively effervescing! Given the high profile racial issues have been receiving of late, it could be argued that this book – its subject matter and its author – must surely be falling into fertile soil.

Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction, which took her six years to complete. It’s written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, without capital letters or full stops for sentences, or proper paragraphs, line breaks being used to control rhythm and beat. Sound confusing? I know, and yet … it’s very readable (says this Booker Philistine with wonder in her voice). Here’s a wee peek inside …

The novel follows twelve characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades, from different backgrounds, having different experiences, making different choices. Each character has her own chapter, but their lives overlap and they are all interconnected in some way. Some of them are close – friends, relatives, lovers – others simply visit the same theatre on the same night. But common threads pervade their stories: oppression, prejudice, discrimination, racism, injustice, sisterhood. Which come in all shapes and sizes. Typically of literary books, there’s no real plot, but the characters challenge the reader to consider British attitudes and practices towards black women through the ages, and more importantly, one’s own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

The primary character and lynch-pin is probably Amma, a black lesbian playwright, now in her 50s, whose new play is being produced at the National Theatre in London. Her vignette starts the book; her after-play party almost concludes it. This part of the story is semi-autobiographical: Evaristo was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s. In between, we meet eleven other characters who range through frustrated teacher, abused partner, sassy teenager, nonagenarian farmer, non-binary person, adopted waif, and so much more besides.

Did it work for me? On one level, yes. I found the unusual writing style surprisingly fit for purpose. The characters come alive through their patois/pidgin, their disjointed paragraphs, their learned experiences over time. I especially enjoyed Carole, a Nigerian girl who rises above her circumstances – poverty, gang rape at 13, schooling in an establishment that specialises in producing teenage mothers and early career criminals – to acquire a degree at Oxford amongst future prime ministers and Nobel Laureates, and goes on to set the world of finance alight. And yet still finds herself overlooked and suspected. Then there’s her indomitable mother Bummi, determined to make a success of life against the odds, setting up her own very professional and superior cleaning services company, gradually accepting her daughter’s steps away from her African heritage, but herself accepted by the young English high society man Carole marries. I couldn’t help but take to the sassy teenage LaTisha, the queen of backchat, spouting her unique brand of philosophical wisdom and researched facts, all the while emoting pure insolence – a special skill of hers according to her teachers. And I really took to Hattie, 93 years old, a great great grandmother, still living alone and running the family’s 800 acre farm, outspoken about modern hifalutin ideas like mobile phones and non binary identity and central heating.

But for me, their brief biographies lacked a certain overall depth, and I’d have liked more development of their individual and collective stories. That in itself is a remarkable reflection. Booker Prize winners usually leave me shrugging my shoulders and saying, So what? This one left me wanting more. I’d call that a success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Viral overload

A surprising number of people have asked me when I’m going to write a book about a pandemic – however, word on the writerly circuit is that this would be ill-advised… for a long time. And it’s certainly not on my radar. But OK, the current pandemic has been uppermost in our thoughts for months, so I thought I’d look at a couple of modern novels written way before this present real-life Covid-19 crisis reared its ugly head, and see what a lively imagination can come up with.

Peter May‘s 2003 novel, The Runner, features endogenous retroviruses. What viruses, do I hear you cry?  Viral remnants found in every cell, an integral part of the human genome, normally dormant, but occasionally activated by external viruses and capable of causing catastrophic damage and the emergence of very dangerous diseases … sounding familiar?! In this case, though, it’s the musculature of the heart in young, fit, elite athletes, causing thickening of the walls of arteries, and heart attacks, which the pathologists are finding.

Section Chief Li Yan smells trouble when he sees a succession of such deaths among top athletes in China. Initially they appear to have been involved in accidents or suicide, but something sinister lies beneath the facade. They all reveal strange pathologies at autopsy, and all except one have completely shaven heads. Li has been protecting his pregnant American fiancée, Margaret Campbell, for her own sake and the well-being of their unborn child, but such is his disquiet, that only she will do for post mortem examinations on these young sportsmen. In the event, infection is the least of their worries, as they become embroiled in a far more deadly and macabre race against the evil genius behind these deaths.

And once again I’m hugely impressed by May’s careful research and ability to convey complex science – this time in the world of medical genetics – convincingly and understandably.

The other book just had to be Lockdown, again by the same author, and released this year. He actually started researching for it way back in 2005 – fifteen years before this current real-life pandemic. At the time he was finding it impossible to find a publisher for The Blackhouse (hard to believe, huh?) and his first Enzo book.

But May’s vivid imagination had conjured up a chilling scenario that arose out of his fascination with viral epidemics.  He wrote furiously during six weeks, burning the midnight oil – only to find no one would touch it; it was too unrealistic and improbable. But when the current virus we’re familiar with hit this year, the novel was picked up by Riverrun and came out while the author was himself hunkered down in his home in France, forbidden from leaving his home except in exceptional circumstances – because of Covid-19.

London is at the epicentre of a global pandemic. It’s in lockdown. A deadly virus – with a mortality rate of nearly 80% – has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and the health and emergency services are overwhelmed. Familiar jargon, huh? Family funerals and religious services are banned, grief is on hold, bodies are burned within twenty-four hours. The prime minister and two of his children are among the dead. An emergency measure has been brought into force banning the printing and distribution of newspapers. Civil disorder is simmering, ‘the debris and detritus of a once civilised society scattered across the ruined streets‘, and martial law has been imposed. Soldiers are prepared to shoot on sight anyone who breaks the curfew.

A temporary overspill facility is being rapidly built, until, that is, the construction workers discover the body of a murdered 10-year-old child in the pit they’re excavating. Because of a dire shortage of policemen, DI Jack MacNeil is called out of hiding in a refuge for down-and-outs to solve the case as fast as possible so that building work can resume. This is no ancient crime scene: the bones of the child – who is Chinese and has an unrepaired hare lip and cleft palate – are still fresh, and what’s more, they’ve been recently stripped of flesh by a knife. Enter the experts – except some of them are sick with the virus. And on top of all this, MacNeil learns that his own young son has died of the flu. He throws all his energies into finding the killer of this little girl, a last hurrah before he leaves the Met for good.

In both books there are elements that raise an eyebrow when it comes to believability, but my mind raced off along different possible scenarios for future novels. However, more than that, May’s experience illustrates two salutary things for me. There is a time to publish and a time to refrain from publishing. And even the top names can hit fallow times.

PS. I was amused by one throw-away line in Lockdown: ‘no self-respecting looter was going to be seen dead breaking into a bookshop‘ …!!!

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In it together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Misery: Learning from a master storyteller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The front line: then and now

Health Minister and Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, was the first member of parliament to be diagnosed with Covid-19. This was back in early March … at a time when there were only 382 reported cases in UK, only 6 people had died. Halcyon days, huh? Less than two months later, we’ve already exceeded 26,000 deaths!

The news about Ms Dorries triggered a memory: I’d read somewhere that she was a trained nurse, and intrigued, I’d bought two of her ‘nursey’ novels in a coffee shop on my way to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town a couple of years ago, stuck them on my shelves, and promptly forgotten about them – The Angels of Lovely Lane and Christmas Angels. Time, methinks, to dig them out and read them … a kind of tribute to the nurses today working so hard to care for people with the virus in a very different world.

I must confess neither the genre, nor the style of writing, are ones I’d normally go for, but there were aspects of these books that gave me pause for thought and sober reflection. These nurses were practising not long before I trained; their experiences resonated with me. Rather like BBC1’s drama, Call the Midwife.

Reading about and recalling those days made me so grateful for all that modern medicine and social care can offer today. How far we have come from those days when
– the NHS was in its infancy
– antibiotics were wonder-drugs
– women had limited career options
– smoking was the norm
– lecture notes were written on typewriters using carbon paper
– rubber tubing was boiled before being inserted into various orifices
– patients were lifted manually
– doctors were revered and all powerful
– women died or were imprisoned following illegal abortions
– ten days bedrest was de rigeur after a simple D&C; three weeks after childbirth
– nurses wore starched collars and frilly caps, always kept their hair off their face tucked inside their caps, lived in hostels with rigid rules, and were all known by their surnames
– silver buckles on petersham belts denoted qualifications
– the Irish were openly discriminated against …

Compare all that with communication, technology, medical expertise, opportunities, science, in 2020. What would have happened if the dreaded coronavirus has struck then?

In her fiction centring on Liverpool in the 1950s, Nadine Dorries has captured a world I knew, and for a few days took me away from the uncertainties and restrictions and anxieties of our present situation, to a bygone era. Memories both happy and sad. But overwhelmingly reasons to be devoutly grateful for what’s available to us today, and the amazing work our front-line staff are doing – and are able to do – to beat Covid-19.

 

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Unprecedented times

We’re repeatedly reminded that we are living in unprecedented times, the normal rules of engagement don’t apply. And indeed nobody can be unaffected by the restrictions, embargoes and uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. They have the capacity for making us look more closely at what really is important in life.

Maybe it’s that sense, or maybe it’s because we’re being reminded every day of the frailty of human life, but I have this week broken the habit of a lifetime … swift intake of breath … yes, it’s true. And that is …? I have abandoned a book a mere one third of the way in. Me!! Someone who prides herself on always … ALWAYS … giving a book the benefit of the doubt until the very last page! As I say, normal rules of engagement don’t apply right now.

With all this extra time at home, and an unusually empty diary, it seemed like a good idea to delve into the terrible hardships endured by Jewish partisans trapped behind enemy lines in occupied Russia during the last years of WW2. The unimaginable hardships they endured before and during their time in the ‘republic of the marshes’ – gut-wrenching deprivation, torture, imprisonment, starvation – that would surely put our present situation into context. So I duly settled down with Primo Levi‘s modern classic, If Not Now, When?

OK. There are some lyrical passages … the story comes from the heart and Levi’s own lived experience (among other things he was a holocaust survivor) … but oh dear … I struggled to maintain concentration. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why.  Is it because there’s so much going on in real life right now that’s taking up brain space? Is it because dark novels aren’t what we need when today’s news is full of grim statistics and dire predictions? Is it because our present emphasis on people coming together feels so much more edifying that a tale of nations and people in conflict? Or is it the book itself? Would it have defied me in more normal times? I don’t know.

Suffice to say that I believe I’d have persevered at any other time – on principle, if nothing else! But not now. Life feels too short, and I have plenty of other books calling me.

But not as many as I had last week. Because, in a spirit of community support, I’ve set up a bookcase at the end of our driveway, and each day I put a selection of books, DVDs and CDs out, with a notice inviting anyone to help themselves by way of distraction for lockdown.

And passers by are availing themselves of the opportunity every day; some leaving a little message, or throwing an appreciative message across the road at the Thursday clapping for the NHS and key workers. We’ve even had someone expressing interest in having the bookcase when this is all over!! And last night someone asked if her friends could add books and jigsaws to the shelves. Brilliant. I’m delighted that people are finding the time to read, that books still appeal. And there’s an added bonus: I’m freeing up space on my own shelves at the same time. If not now, when? It’s an ill wind …

Stay safe, everyone.

 

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Justice, rights, entitlement

The latest casualty of the coronavirus lockdown in this country is fertility care. As of Wednesday of this week, no new patients will be accepted, and even those in mid-treatment, those for whom this is their last hope, those who will be too old to qualify or stand a chance of success by the end of lockdown, will not now receive the necessary procedures towards which they’ve been working for so long. Yet another tragedy. More heartbreak. More hopelessness.

Which brings my thoughts to the ethical issues around assisted conception …

It’s now fifteen years since I wrote Double Trouble, a book about surrogate pregnancy. Fifteen years! Yoiks. But as with so many ethical dilemmas in medicine, the issues are still relevant today.

I was fascinated then, to watch the serialised BBC1 drama, The Nest, which finished this week, about a very wealthy but childless couple, Glasgow property tycoon Dan and his beautiful pampered wife Emily, who decide to go down this route. Click on the picture for the official trailer.

All attempts at IVF have proved unsuccessful. Dan’s sister has already tried to carry a baby for them but miscarried. They have one precious embryo left. One. Only one more chance. Emily meets the troubled teenage Kaya when she accidentally knocks into her in her car. Kaya sees an opportunity to get out of her impoverished life, and offers to be a surrogate for them in return for £50K. But as the story unravels we find that Kaya has secrets in her past and a very dubious pedigree indeed …; the would-be father Dan is something of a rough diamond too, dealing with a lot of shady characters and skullduggery …; Emily is single-minded about motherhood and what she wants, but privately troubled by the morality of what they are doing – always setting herself up as ‘the principled one‘ according to her sister-in-law. No-one in the UK will implant the last embryo. However, the Dochertys can well afford to go abroad for the simple procedure, and they do so.

On the face of it everyone stands to win. Kaya will be set on her dreamed-of pathway to becoming a successful business woman, able to ‘go on a plane, have one of these pull-along cases‘. The wealthy couple get their hearts’ desire. Better yet, surrogate and intended parents establish a relationship, even friendship. Kaya moves in with the Dochertys and gets a taste of a life of privilege. The baby will not only be much wanted, but will have every advantage money can buy.

Naturally – this is, after all, fiction, drama, a series requiring cliff hangers – things go pear-shaped. Relationships get confused. Loyalties are divided. Dubious and unsavoury motives emerge. But the underlying questions and challenges remain pertinent.

Is parenthood a right?
Is ‘want’ the same as ‘need’ in childbirth terms?
Payment for this service in the UK is forbidden. Should it be?
How binding should a contract between intending parents and surrogate be?
Should private arrangements for surrogacy be permitted?
Does a woman have the right to do whatever she likes with her own body?
What constitutes ‘reasonable expenses’?
Should those with the wherewithal be allowed to circumvent ethical and medical guidelines?
Does using someone far less powerful in this way constitute exploitation?
In the event of a dispute about whose baby it is, whose rights should take precedence, and who should decide?
What if the child is damaged/imperfect/not what was expected? Should the contract still stand? Who should accept responsibility for him/her?
What of the baby’s rights?
How much of its origins should a child be told?

Back to the drama … enter Kaya’s long-estranged mother, who encourages her to renege on the contract, hang on to the baby, become a mother herself, a better mother than she has been. But Dan already loves this child. Even when he finds out she is not his genetically, she’s still his daughter in his heart. The Dochertys call in their lawyer; the case goes to court. It’s left to the judge in the Family Court to put things into perspective – severely castigating their self-serving recklessness, the complete imbalance of power, the undesirable qualities on both sides. But, she says, at the end of the day it’s not a question of how she would judge them; it’s about what is in the baby’s best interests.

Contrary to expectation, there is a happy ending to this story, and both sides demonstrate they’ve learned important lessons about what matters in life. But the drama perfectly illustrates the power of fiction to challenge us to think about what society today should endorse, and how far the law can go in dealing with the fine nuances of moral questions in assisted reproduction. Well done, screenwriter Nicole Taylor.

 

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Disclaimer

We’re deep in a situation of lockdown still and the stark reality of our world-wide war against Covid-19 has made most of our everyday preoccupations seem trivial. But it behoves us all to find strategies for keeping our mental as well as our physical heath as robust as we can. My first go-to respite activity is reading (no surprises there, huh?); getting lost in a whole other world, so I’m going to share my thoughts on a psychological thriller bought back in the (g)olden days when life was busy, and books accumulated waiting for time to read them. Those far off days when I was immersing myself in thrillers in order to learn the mechanics of writing in this genre. Before real life took over the role of sending shivers down our spines.

It’s Renée Knight‘s debut novel, Disclaimer.

How many people bother to read the small-print information at the beginning of a novel about publication, rights, cataloguing, typesetting and copyright? Very few, I’d guess. And those few, other writers and publishers probably. But in amongst all that boring detail you’ll find a disclaimer to the effect that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

What if, though, that disclaimer had a red line drawn through it? THAT would make you sit up and take notice, wouldn’t it? And so it is when award-winning documentary maker, Catherine Ravenscroft, finds a book on her bedside table with the disclaimer crossed out. With a chill of horror coursing through her veins, as she reads, she becomes increasingly aware that she herself is not only the foundation of the story, but the key player. The words ricochet around her brain, slam into her chest, one after another. The names may have been changed, but the details are unmistakable. And this story will reveal a secret she thought no one else knew; a secret she has carried unshared for two decades.

Who has written it? Who has delivered it? Who has sent a second copy to her only son, Nicholas? Who has spelled out her death – under the wheels of a train – the price she must pay for pretending that everything was absolutely fine. Her dread increases exponentially as the stalker closes in.

We, the readers, know the sender is an elderly English teacher, Stephen Brigstocke, who himself has something rather unsavoury in his history. After the death of his wife Nancy, he stumbles across a stash of erotic photographs, and a secret manuscript written by her – clues she left for him to find. Clues relating to the tragic death of their only son, Jonathan, who drowned in Spain trying to rescue a five year old boy, and to a terrible truth Nancy had concealed from her husband during her lifetime.

Desire for revenge consumes him. He publishes Nancy’s story, The Perfect Stranger, and hand delivers his grenade.

‘… the  book was like a terrier, my Jack Russell of a novel which would sniff her from her hiding place and chase her out into the open. Its sharp, pointed teeth would expose her, strip away the counterfeit selves she’d assembled.’

But the wait for revenge is slow and protracted. Alternating chapters give us the feel for the cat and mouse game being played out by these two. Extracts from The Perfect Stranger paint a picture of what happened in that Spanish holiday resort all those years ago. But gradually, chillingly, we are made aware that nothing is what it seems; a far more terrible reality underpins the tale told by those incriminating photographs.

As expected the story twists and turns and we’re exposed to the worst aspects of the characters’ inner selves, none of whom are very likeable. But it’s cleverly designed, and I was intrigued by the author’s ability to slowly but inexorably turn the entire story on its head. Tightening the screw one more time right at the very end.

An unpredictable but intriguing diversion in these weirdly nightmarish days when the real world is spinning into an uncertain and unknowable future.

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Decisions in a time of coronavirus

Week 2 of the lockdown because of Covid-19 and I am reflecting back on an extraordinary seven days. Unprecedented. Grave. Frightening. But one of the most unexpected developments has been a positive one, closely connected to my professional interests: people have been thinking and talking about the ethics around end of life care, and specifically about Advance Directives, teasing out the kind of interventions or treatments they would wish to avoid.

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I wrote my own living will years ago, and have revisited it periodically just to be certain it reflects my sustained wishes. It does. My husband and children have known about the documents and their contents ever since I drafted them, but suddenly these matters seem much more urgent and relevant. There’s a greatly increased possibility that I might become seriously ill soon; that I or they might be called upon to decide whether it’s appropriate or not to accept aggressive or invasive treatment. That it might be futile. So, this week I sent copies of my Advance Directive to refresh their memories as to the detail. If they’re called upon to represent my views, they will know precisely what to say.

However, more importantly, this crisis has prompted other people I know to think about their own mortality and how they feel about these issues, for the first time. Sobering stuff. But so right.

At the very least we all need to have the conversation with our nearest and dearest; better still record our decisions, have them officially witnessed, make the documents known and available.

And the questions even for hardened ethicists have been widened and thrown into stark relief by developments during this pandemic:
what if our hospitals are already full, and I can’t be admitted if I succumb to the virus?
what if being admitted to hospital means I risk dying alone?
what if I live alone and I contract the illness?
what if I fall outside the criteria for treatment?
what if the medics deem me to be highly unlikely to survive?
what if it’s a choice of me versus another patient?
what happens if no-one can attend a funeral?
… and so on …
This public health catastrophe and its horrific statistics has brought us face to face with undreamed-of dilemmas confronting our society in the spring of 2020. Now.

The time has never been more urgent for a weighing up of the risks and benefits, and an analysis of our beliefs and values. For having the conversation. It’s personal. It’s real. It’s not going away.

What will you choose?

 

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Coronavirus – keeping calm in a crisis

Remember that feeling when you come out of the cinema from a film, set in the wild deserted, snowy wastes of perpetual winter, and the sun is shining and people are milling? Disorientated. Discombubulated. It takes a moment for the world to steady on its axis. As a writer of fiction, I’m well used to that sense of hovering between reality and fantasy. But now it’s not just a sense – it’s for real. And we’re ALL experiencing it – every hour, every day. The greatest public health emergency of our generation. And it’s worldwide.

As a country, this week we’ve officially moved from the ‘containment’ phase of this new and spreading Covid-19 virus, into ‘delay’; desperately trying to keep demand within the capacity of our health services. On Monday things ratcheted up hugely. We’re now avoiding all unnecessary travel and social contact. My generation are deemed extra vulnerable and a protected species! … but we ALL have to take unprecedented decisions and actions.

© Can Stock Photo / nasir1614

Sound information is always key to good decision-making, but there’s so much out there, a lot of it hard to take in, sometimes even conflicting. Initially the official cautious approach of our Government was at odds with the advice of many scientists and the WHO who were looking for more draconian measures sooner. That felt troubling. Who were we to believe? For me, uncertainty was much more stressful than the fear of the illness itself. So I welcomed clearer instruction on Monday: I could now, with a clear conscience, cancel the week’s planned travel and social encounters, and prepare for a long period of increasing social isolation.

So, reviewing the situation thus far, with my ethical hat on, what influences or persuades me, and enables me to make an informed choice? Facts. Consistency. Authoritative voices. Transparency – being shown the workings behind the advice. Quiet expertise.

A concrete example: my personal opinion of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, I’ve been heartened to see him flanked by experts of undisputed scientific and medical pedigree, who add gravitas and authority to the messages given to guide us all in dealing with this ongoing and escalating crisis. Professor Chris Whitty is the Chief Medical Officer for England; Professor Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government – both men with yards of qualifications and credentials and experience. But best of all, speaking in a measured, calm and quietly dignified manner. In simple words we can all understand. It takes someone with real expertise and confidence to convey the facts in comprehensible lay terms without obfuscation or bombast, to remain unflappable in the face of challenge.

When, early on, Professor Whitty observed that rushing into panic mode and isolating ourselves prematurely was unwise, enthusiasm would wane, fatigue and non-compliance would set in, and the psychological as well as the practical consequences could be far more detrimental, I let my breath out gently. Here was a chap who understood human nature. Understood not only the epidemiological and medical aspects of the epidemic, the immensely complicated world of microbiology and disease transmission, but the lived reality of everyday Joe/Jane Bloggs. Against the bluff and bluster and pomposity that can so easily characterise people regurgitating secondhand facts and figures, these modest understated men defuse the panic. So when they tell us that THE most important thing is hand-washing and containment of nasal spray and distancing measures, we can all personally identify with such ordinary domestic strategies; we each and every one have a vital role to play in this global war effort. When they tell us that the time has now come to introduce more stringent isolation measures to save lives and reduce the burden on our front line emergency services, we can comprehend and accept the need. When they admit it will be really difficult and it will go on for a long time, we know they understand the consequences, they are in this with us.

© Can Stock Photo / coraMax

But my heart goes out to them, and all other ‘leaders’ who are called upon to make major judgements on behalf of their people/teams/dependents/clients/delegates/fans. My own personal sphere of influence is microscopic by comparison with that of these men, but nevertheless I feel the weight of responsibility. Just what is the wise and sensible choice? The devil is indeed in the detail. So, huge thanks to everyone who is doing their level best to steer us through these unchartered waters. And hats off to the countless unknowns who are quietly and effectively providing acts of kindness to cheer and support those in most need. Already this unprecedented crisis has brought out the best in people.

I rather like this apposite and quietly dignified quote from the Talmud: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’

 

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