Hazel McHaffie

Inside the O’Briens

Cursed inheritance

As I promised last week, good news this time!

Eight or nine years ago I chose Motor Neurone Disease for the degenerative condition journalist Adam O’Neill is battling with in my novel, Right to Die; Right to Diea disease that will strike right at the heart of his being and his aspirations. So I was fascinated to find Lisa Genova chose Huntington’s Disease for her tough Boston cop Joe O’Brien in Inside the O’Briens, a disease that stops his career dead in its tracks and forces him to face the horrors of genetic inheritance.

Both MND and HD are frightening, crippling, fatal conditions that rob the person of control and dignity. Getting inside the mind and body of either an Adam or a Joe is very scary stuff. So, having been there myself, I was extra curious to see how someone else tackled the ethical minefields and personal challenges associated with such a scenario; especially someone with Genova’s credentials.

This time she has inserted occasional tracts of medical explanation about the condition into her novel to inform the reader, positioning herself as a scientist; but for me her real strength lies in her ability to describe the illness from the inside. She puts the humanity into the science, compassion into the clinical facts. The insidious onset before policeman Joe even suspects the truth. The sudden weird and inexplicable bursts of anger. An inability to process instructions. Finding it impossible to keep legs and feet still on parade … in police exercises … in a restaurant. And then, once he’s diagnosed, the inexorable progression. The involuntary indiscriminate throws – punches, food, cutting words – that label him as drunk, deranged or dangerous to passers by. The red rages that cause his wife Rosie’s black eyes, terrible destruction in the walls of the family home. The fear that won’t let him ever hold his grandson. The depression that makes him constantly check his gun is still loaded and primed.

We peer into his past when Joe recalls his mother’s antsy wild black eyes as she lay in a mental institution for years; condemned to be known as an incurable drunk. The questions hitting him now nearly forty years later. How could she have remained an alcoholic in the hospital all those years? Why had his father stopped taking Joe and his sister to visit her? Why had his strong dad wept like a baby? What lessons did she actually teach him?

The author powerfully captures the brutal reality through the eyes of the rest of the family too:

Inside the O'Briens‘Huntington’s isn’t the absence of moving, thinking, and feeling. This disease is not a transcendental state of bliss. It’s a complete freak show – ugly, constant, unproductive movements, uncontrollable rage, unpredictable paranoia, obsessive thinking.’

We see the dawning terror in his wife’s eyes. Her silences. Her withdrawals. Her desperate stroking of the crucifix round her neck, the beads of her rosary. Her binning of the symbols of her ingrained Catholic faith.

Then there’s the terrible implications for their four beloved offspring. Vegan yoga teacher, Katie, living life in ‘peace, health and harmony’. Ballerina Meghan, limbs and body and mind all supple, beautiful, desirable. Firefighter JJ, taking his health and fitness for granted, using it to save others; preparing for imminent parenthood with his wife Colleen. Rebel Patrick, sewing his wild oats liberally, experimenting with life. Each one of them carrying a fifty percent chance of harbouring this cursed disease. Nothing can change that fact. Nothing can halt, slow or reverse this terrible thing. Joe, their father, is powerless to protect them. Indeed it was he, their supposed protector, who handed on the poisoned chalice in the first place. And now he must stand on the sidelines and watch them all battling with the impact of their cruel inheritance. Only they individually can decide whether to take the test, if they want to know the truth lurking unseen in their own DNA. JJ and Colleen may not even choose on behalf of their baby son.

How should Joe deal with his burdens? Is there a way out? Should he take it? How can he best support his children? Should the youngsters go for testing? What are the implications if they do/don’t? Would I want to know?

I love books that are at once a gripping read and challenge me to think deeply – especially in the field of medical ethics. And even though I’ve been into these questions already myself as an author, I thought this book was brilliant and awarded it five stars. Beautifully written, compassionate, perceptive, engrossing, provocative. Genova at the top of her game again. Seems I prefer her as neuroscientist-turned-novelist rather than simply novelist. That could well be something to do with my own position on the spectrum; nevertheless the experience of reading Love Anthony and Inside the O’Briens one after the other, has taught me something of value for my writing too.

So, Genova has already tackled Alzheimer’s, Left Neglect, autism and Huntington’s. What next? MND, she says – or as she calls it ALS. Ahah! I await that novel with bated breath!

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Neuroscientist or novelist

You’ve probably heard of Lisa Genova. She’s a neuroscientist by background but now also a fantastic novelist.

Her debut novel, Still Alice a fascinating insight into the mind of a young professor with Alzheimer’s – became a sensation and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 2014. I gave it a four star rating when I reviewed it on my blog and when I chose it for discussion at a Readers’ Day. A brilliant and perceptive book.

Less well known is Genova’s second book, Left Neglected, which I also reviewed on this blog some time ago while I was ill. I loved this one too and it resonated with my own experiences of identity and disability. It’s insightful and lyrical and thought-provoking.

Genova novelsSo I just had to buy her other novels: Love Anthony and Inside the O’Briens. I’ve now read both of them but come to different conclusions about them. This week I want to talk about Love Anthony.

It tells the story of two women: Olivia and Beth. Both have disintegrating family lives; both are left without husbands; both adopt new careers.

Olivia Donatelli’s dreams are shattered when her beautiful little boy Anthony fails to develop normally, fails to speak, fails to engage with her emotionally. Aged 3 he is diagnosed with autism. Aged 8 he is dead. The strain and toll wreck her marriage and deplete all her reserves and resources. She buries herself in remote Nantucket Island until, through her photography, she finds new direction and new answers.

Beth Ellis is the mother of three girls who has just discovered her husband’s infidelity. Struggling to find a new identity she turns to creative writing and begins to write a first person story about a boy with autism. Sitting in the same seat in the same library she feels she is somehow channelling a haunting voice.

Love AnthonyOh dear. I’m afraid this book didn’t live up to my expectations. Neither the writing nor the plot nor the characters are a patch on Still Alice. It doesn’t do for autism what Alice did for Alzheimer’s. And I really didn’t like or believe in the story Beth wrote – the narrative voice became tedious and improbable. So I was startled to read Genova’s own declaration: ‘With Still Alice and Left Neglected, I was a neuroscientist writing a novel. With Love Anthony, I became a novelist.’ Hmmm, is there a cautionary tale there for me?

Tune in next week for much better news about the other one, Inside the O’Briens.

 

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