Hazel McHaffie

Jodi Picoult

Exotic island or private library?

Some writers fly off to exotic islands or remote mountains; some hide away in huts miles from any internet connections or distractions; some spend six months trawling through microfiches and dusty archives. All in the name of authenticity and accuracy. To get in the zone.

Me, I’m knee deep in books which might inform the two stories I’m currently working on. Trips to special locations remain somewhere in the hazy future.

The hypocrisy and mores and prejudices of the upper classes? Julian FellowesSnobs or Past Imperfect will do nicely, thank you.

A bit of terror and psychological trauma? Harlan Coben or Robert Goddard are my go-to choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blend of ethical dilemmas and fiction? Diane Chamberlain, Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf will keep me out of mischief.

Everyday life in bygone eras? Biographies about Dickens, Jane Austen, et al are guiding me nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can pick up and put down, browse or flick, all while I weave in and out of domestic responsibilities and grandparental excursions during the summer season. All without roaming further than my study/library door. No jet lag, no tummy upsets, no grappling with weird currencies and incomprehensible languages and dodgy local mores. And I’m still free to whip into town for Festival performances and assorted exhibitions. Perfect.

 

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Martin Luther King: ‘I can do small things in a great way.’

As regular visitors to my blog will know I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books (the single authored ones at least) and I was delighted when her style changed from being rather formulaic to more varied. Her twentieth one, The Storyteller, was an absolute triumph, as I wrote three years ago.

So I simply had to read her latest offering: Small Great Things. I confess, I’m not much enamoured of her title, but she had a very valid reason for choosing it. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr once said: ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way‘, and this book is all about the things Dr King fought for. A fair defence.

As ever Picoult combines a compelling storyline with an important and challenging issue, in this case racial discrimination and prejudice, still, it seems, a major problem in the US. And as usual it’s well-researched, cleverly constructed and both thought-provoking and insightful.

Ruth Jefferson is a law-abiding, hard-working, academically able midwife (known as a labor and delivery nurse in the US) and widowed mum. It’s racial discrimination that brings her before the courts indicted for murder. The opening chapters lead gently into the scenario. When Ruth comes on shift and takes over from a colleague, part of her caseload includes a new mother, Brittany Bauer, and her newborn baby son, Davis. She sets about doing routine tests on the baby boy but his father, Turk, registers a strong objection to a woman of colour touching his child. Ruth’s boss, Marie, who has half her years of experience but has been promoted over her, makes a snap decision to stick a hot-pink Post-it on the baby’s notes: NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT. So when the child collapses in front of her what is Ruth to do? At the time of his death she is one of several people in attendance, nevertheless she is the one the parents blame; the only black member of staff.

Picoult portrays the Bauers as ugly characters, aggressive white supremicists who think nothing of beating up Jews or homosexuals or black people. Humiliating others, hounding them, oppressing anyone who disagrees with their take on the world – that’s their modus operandi. It makes quite shocking reading.

By contrast Ruth and her son are peaceable God-fearing Christians with strong moral values. And her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, is a sympathetic happily married mother-of-one who has devoted her life to helping the downtrodden and under-privileged. I think my editors would advise blurring the lines between good and evil rather more but that’s a literary quibble. And unseen unexpected characteristics do emerge towards the end.

Picoult’s trademark multiple-points-of-view are useful for opening the eyes of the reader to the nuances of language and the many ways in which society can discriminate, and I loved the way Ruth took her lawyer on an ordinary shopping trip to show her what it felt like to be a black woman in a white society. And Kennedy’s own deliberate exposure of herself to the scary experience of being in a minority.

But best of all, this time Picoult adds a lengthy note saying how much she herself was chastened by what she learned while researching and reading for this book. Her career as a novelist has been driven by outrage and a desire to make people aware of injustice, inequality and victims’ stories. This time it’s particularly powerful because it has touched her personally. She was ‘exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined.

‘So what have I learned that is useful? Well, if you are white, like I am, you can’t get rid of the privilege you have, but you can use it for good. Don’t say I don’t even notice race! like it’s a positive thing. Instead, recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross a finish line, and create fair paths to success for everyone that accommodate those differences. Educate yourself. If you think someone’s voice is being ignored, tell others to listen. If your friend makes a racist joke, call him out on it, instead of just going along with it. … I didn’t write this novel because I thought it would be fun or easy. I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know. As Roxana Robinson said, “A writer is like a tuning fork: we respond when we’re struck by something … If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us.”‘ There speaks honest conviction.

And of course, she teaches us in a most engaging way, which is why she is rightfully an ongoing best-seller. Small Great Things is a real page-turner. The author makes no claim to literary pretensions but she does drop in her customary occasional delightful turns of phrase.

The prosecutor is ‘about as jolly as the death penalty‘.

Ruth’s mother was a strict parent: ‘I remember how once, she put out a place setting at the dinner table for my attitude, and she told me, Girl, when you leave the table, that can stay behind.’

The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but think there’s a dash of miracle involved, too.‘ (I’ve delivered countless babies myself and I never lost this sense of wonder and awe either.)

The lawyer asks her junior: ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Twenty-four.’
‘I have sweaters older than you.’

An author who always has something important to say and a way of leaving her characters tucked into your consciousness long after you’ve closed her covers.

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Points of View

My new novel is told through the eyes of three different narrators, and I’ve spent a lot of time and thought juggling with the options as to how best to present them. State the name at the beginning of each point of view? Designate chapters? Make the first paragraph by each person tell its own story? Leave the reader to fathom it out? Or what? In the end I went for the narrator’s name at the top of each chapter, as, for example, Jodi Picoult and Diane Chamberlain do. And as I did in Over my Dead Body.

After all, I don’t want my readers to be confused or struggling, do I?

Nor though, do I wish to underestimate their intelligence. Hmmm.

Moon TigerBut then, this week I’ve been reading Penelope Lively‘s Moon Tiger and I’m gobsmacked. Not only does she not give any such readerly assistance, but she changes POVs within chapters without warning, inserts flashbacks, omits punctuation willy nilly, doesn’t even break up dialogue. Surely this is pushing the boundaries a bit too far? And yet … well, I’m keeping up. OK, I’m having to concentrate, but it soon becomes clear who’s speaking. Sometimes it’s the once beautiful and famous historian, Claudia Hampton, now elderly and dying, lying in bed waiting for the end but thinking of bygone days. Sometimes it’s her young self, travelling, falling in love, working in exotic places, reporting wars and other civilisations. Sometimes it’s her only brother and adored adversary, Gordon. Sometimes it’s her daughter’s father, Jasper, charming but untrustworthy. Sometimes her colourless and conventional daughter, Lisa. Sometimes her one true love, Tom, found and lost in war-torn Egypt. A mad confusing medley you might think, and not the place to flout all the usual literary conventions. It certainly wouldn’t suit a lot of people I know. Probably not most who read my books in fact.

But hey, let’s not get too sniffy. After all, Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987. And Lively herself has been made a Dame for her contribution to literature!

That’s literary fiction for you. Rules? What rules?

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Dickensian arguments

I imagine lots of authors dream of having their books turned into films. What better way to bring them to the attention of thousands? Get those sales figures sky rocketing. Reach a different kind of audience. Become famous. Get rich.

And yet adaptation is a topic that generates strong feelings in the other direction. Books are always deeper and somehow better … films rarely square with imagined characters … I’m always disappointed when I see the film; It never lives up to the book version … along those lines anyway.

I’d certainly fear the loss of essential elements in my own novels were Hollywood to come calling (less snorting on the back row). That’s not to say it’d be a big ‘No’, but we all have a keen sense of the ‘big idea’ (as they say in the advertising world) behind our stories. We know our characters inside out, we’ve lived with them, inside them even, for years, and we want filmmakers to be true to them. But there are no guarantees.

Allow me to illustrate. Years ago I read Jodi Picoult‘s book, My Sister’s Keeper, and enjoyed it. This time she was exploring my field of interest, raising awareness, doing superbly what I was trying to do in my own little corner. Then I saw the film and was terribly disappointed. The characters weren’t at all as I knew them. In particular the lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to whom the main character, Anna, turns for help in suing her parents for rights to her own body. Campbell’s a key figure in the book and we’re in suspense throughout wondering … why does he have an assistance dog? What is his problem? Why does he give every person who inquires a different answer? But his humour, his ingenuity, his vibrancy, is completely missing in the film. So for me that didn’t work.

However, for lots of people who only saw the film, it could well have been their first and only introduction to the challenges surrounding creating saviour siblings. That has to be good. Many will never know what literary pearls they’re missing. Those who subsequently read the book, will only find their awareness enriched.

I would argue that books and films are different art forms, trying to do different things, reach different audiences. There’s something special about immersing oneself in the written word, conjuring up scenes and characters in one’s imagination, feeling the emotions as they slowly, slowly unravel on the page. But stand – or should that be sit? – back and watch the skill of actors who do the hard work, the interpretation, for you – watch the effect of the brooding silences, the shy glances, the touch of hands – in seconds they can convey a world of feeling hard to describe in pages of words. And we’ve seen that par excellence in the current dramatisation of War and Peace on BBC One on Sunday evenings at the moment.

Now, I admit, I don’t know what I’m missing by watching Andrew Davies‘ TV adaptation of Tolstoy‘s epic tale; I’ve never got around to tackling the tome itself. But I like to think it has now become more accessible to me. If Davies has been sufficiently true to the original I’d have a better sense of the story lines, the context, the many interwoven characters. Maybe one day ….? But of course they will now look like their film counterparts from the outset!

I have read Dickens and Austen and Trollope, those classics which are trotted out and reinvented time and again. They may be regular features on the school curriculum reading lists but I for one never tire of them. So I was delighted to see a brand new take on our old favourite, Dickens, currently showing on BBC One too: Dickensian.

This is no rehash of the same story. It takes a bold leap and weaves together lots of his characters and story-lines. And sews them into a classic murky London setting with plenty of pea-soupers, dim lantern-light, Christmas snow and doubtful morals. Delicious.

So, for example, we all know Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, forever wearing her bridal gown. In Dickensian we see a plausible back story; she’s being wooed by an unscrupulous scoundrel. We know it’ll all end badly, but we’re fascinated to watch the seduction, the power the seducer also wields over her weak homosexual brother, her struggle to be a businesswoman in a man’s world. She takes on extra dimensions in the process.

Other old favourites are exactly themselves as we know and love them. Sarah Gamp – a gin-swilling ‘medical person’, wheedling a tipple out of anyone who crosses her path. Ebenezer Scrooge – the quintessential miserly curmudgeon, but in this production, fleshed out, in action, antagonising all he comes into contact with. Bob Cratchit – absolutely true to the original with his huge heart and devotion to his family. Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, Bill Sikes, the motley band of child pick pockets – they’re all there, scurrying around in the nether regions of Victorian London, relying on their wits and criminal loyalties to avoid the noose and the inspector’s wrath. Mr and Mrs Bumble, Inspector Bucket, Jacob Marley … a cast of hundreds. Just like Dickens’ stories.

It’s compelling stuff. Some reviewers have questioned whether it’s worthy of 20 episodes; apparently audiences have tailed off significantly. But for me it has rekindled my love of Dickens, made me want to start all over again reading the books! So I’m not one to scoff at film adaptations. Hollywood, if you’re listening ….

 

 

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Portable magic!

Famous American author, Stephen King, has described books as ‘a uniquely portable magic’ – and he wasn’t referring to the news this week that inmates are smuggling books into prison laced with hallucinogenic drugs! No, books have a unique potential and power to open up worlds and horizons and opportunities. They can transport us into another dimension altogether. They can influence our mental wellbeing, our opinions, our relationships, our empathy with others. British novelist and journalist, Matt Haig, goes further: he maintains that books saved his life, rescuing him from severe depression.

With that in mind, I look up at my own shelves and suddenly the feeling of you-should-tidy-these becomes enough-to-keep-me-sane-for-decades.

One wall of my libraryYes, OK, I know I should tidy and sort them, but somehow reading them always seems so much more attractive and urgent. And I am doing a kind of sort – transferring the to-be-read to the now-read sections.

As part of my mental tidy up I decided to return to a familiar author and complete her set of novels. They fall into the same kind of genre as Jodi Picoult: family relationships, moral quandaries, suspense, secrets – on the face of it a similar vein to my own kind of writing. And as you know I like to keep up with ‘the competition’.

Diane Chamberlain is the lady in question. With a background in social work and psychotherapy, she certainly understands how people tick and I like her light touch; she doesn’t labour the psychology or force information upon the reader. But what I didn’t know until now is that she goes a stage further than most writers: she sometimes puts herself into a light trance to get inside the heads and hearts of her characters … Wow! Risky stuff, but a unique take on living inside one’s characters! And perhaps it’s that awareness and sensitivity that come through in her novels.

Before the StormBefore the Storm tells the story of the Lockwood family struggling to deal with postnatal depression, tragic deaths, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and betrayals. Because of the damage to his brain caused by his mother’s drinking, 15-year-old Andy’s take on the world is simple and black-and-white. Then one day he gets trapped in a serious fire in a building full of teenagers. Somehow he manages to use his initiative and guide other children to safety through a window in the men’s toilets, and to his naive delight he’s hailed as a hero.  But it’s not all happy ever after. Several people die in the fire, some are terribly damaged, whole families are wrecked. What’s more, adulation turns to suspicion and hatred when Andy is suspected of setting the fire himself. The Lockwood family regroup, Andy’s sister, mother and uncle join forces to keep him out of prison, but rescue comes in the end from a most challenging source. Guilt and grief abound. Told through the voice of all four main protagonists it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.  Just how far would I go to protect my children? How well do I really know them?

Chamberlain novelsSecrets She Left Behind is a sequel to Before the Storm, but fear not, I won’t reveal any spoilers to the earlier novel. In Secrets Chamberlain cleverly unravels other dimensions in the lives of the characters at the heart of the story about the devastating fire. Central to the plot is Sara Weston, whose son Keith was terribly burned in the blaze, whose best friend Laurel has every reason to shun her, and whose poverty stands in sharp contrast to the wealth and privilege of the Lockwoods. Now Sara has mysteriously vanished leaving a raft of secrets behind her. There’s a huge over-weighting of deceit in this sequel, with a rather improbable number of people leading secret lives; relationships and dynamics distorted by the cycle of revelations; and individual members struggling to come to terms with the past and create new futures – all in the claustrophobic confines of a tiny island community. Boundaries between good and bad, perpetrator and victim, become blurred. And again the reader is left questioning: Just how far would I go to forgive those who ruined my life? How would I react to betrayal and rejection?

I must confess I was expecting a very different denouement in Secrets She Left Behind. That, however, would have been a different book. Nevertheless imagining the ending I would have given it gave my writing-brain a healthy work out.

The Shadow WifeThe Shadow Wife tells the story of Joelle D’Angelo aka Shanti Joy Angel. Divorced and childless, Joelle is grieving for her dearest friend, Mara, who has suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage after giving birth. Shocked to her core, Joelle turns to the only other person who understands her pain, Mara’s husband, Liam, for comfort. But gradually their relationship changes and after one illicit night, Joelle finds herself pregnant. Determined not to compound her mistake, Joelle decides she must leave her home and job as a social worker and begin a new life elsewhere, but before she goes she makes one last ditch effort to help Mara recover. She turns to Carlynn Kling, a lady with mysterious powers of healing who saved Joelle’s own life when she was a baby. The interweaving of two timelines in this book is cleverly handled and the unravelling of the past sits perfectly with the present. A good read and a tender tale of love and loss and loyalty. Could I live with the choices these characters faced? How would I react if my parent rejected me? Or if I fell in love with my best friend’s husband? Or if a tiny lie could transform my future immeasurably? I don’t know. But this book has challenged me to think about my own moral code and my boundaries.

There, that’s the Diane Chamberlain section complete and re-filed.

 

 

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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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Screenwriting

To my chagrin I must admit that I rarely note, almost never remember, the name of writers who are deputed to convert books into film scripts. Shame on me indeed; I more than most should value and acknowledge the work of my fellow writers. But just think for a moment … how many become household names? Very few, I’d suggest.

One notable exception though, as of this week, is Sarah Phelps, the lady who was commissioned to turn JK Rowling‘s The Casual Vacancy, into a 3-part TV programme for the BBC (part 1 scheduled last Sunday evening.)The Casual Vacancy She featured in the media, even appeared in person on the Breakfast sofa. And the newsworthy aspect was … ? She had been bold enough to change the ending of a hugely-hyped book by one of the most famous writers in the world. Wow!

Now, if you haven’t read TCV, let me tell you, giving it a different ending is a big deal. A very big deal. I reviewed the novel on this blog ages ago, and commented on how bleak and miserable it was, and how it all ends in tragedy for Krystal, the one young girl we were rooting for.  Well, unlike me, the screenwriter wanted a happier ending; the existing one would lose the viewers she reckoned. So she changed it to something more redemptive. More than that, she was singing the praises of JK Rowling who had been gracious and understanding about her adaptation. And hats off to JKR indeed. That’s some concession. (OK, OK, I know, the cynical amongst us might also add: and all good publicity!)

But it got me thinking. How would I have responded to someone tinkering with my carefully thought-through storyline, I wonder? I’d be pretty sensitive at the very least. Proprietorial? Possibly. Generous enough to accept the screenwriter’s judgement and wisdom? I don’t know. Depends on what was involved, I guess, how much narrative integrity was at stake.

That led me to think of other adaptations. Personally I’m always rather ambivalent about seeing a film or play of a book I’ve enjoyed, mostly preferring to cling to the scenes and characters of my imagination. And my heart goes out to those authors whose stories are really distorted.

My Sister's Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper

For example, I really regretted seeing the film My Sister’s Keeper. In Jodi Picoult‘s book of the same name the lawyer’s guide dog features large – just what is he protecting his master from? The lawyer himself is very secretive about it, giving a different explanation to everyone. It’s a significant thread in the story with the truth only revealed towards the end in a dramatic court scene, but it doesn’t feature at all in the film. Then there was the ending, changed completely, outraging many readers – including me! And certain characters were either omitted or altered substantially and irritatingly.

So when a film is sensitive to the original I’m extra delighted. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was a case in point.

Birdsong

Birdsong

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

The Book Thief and To Kill a Mocking Bird (the version with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch) and War Horse were three others that didn’t disappoint. (Just click on the pictures for the official trailers.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

War Horse

War Horse

The people and places may look different from my imagined ones but their characters are true and the basic messages are intact. Indeed, in some ways, those penetrating looks, those sudden silences, the body language, add poignancy and emotional depth to the written word. And when that happens, I sit in awe of any scriptwriter who can capture the very essence of the story and recreate it for an entirely different medium. I’ve tried writing plays and believe me, it’s a whole different ball game from writing a novel. So when Jo Rowling says that Sarah Phelps is at the top of her game, that’s a huge tribute.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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Fact, fiction and fabrication

You’ve heard me say it before: I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. I’ve dutifully read them all – well, of course I have; her trademark is an ethical question at the heart of the story. So I had to buy her latest one and … wow! it’s in a totally different league from her others. Nothing formulaic; no sense of déjà-vu at all.

But, as ever, she has thoroughly researched her material, and manages to ‘wear the learning lightly’. The descriptions of bread making are as delicious as the accounts of mass exterminations are harrowing.

AuschwitzA nonagenarian, Josef Weber, and a reclusive young woman, Sage Singer, meet in a bakery. On the surface they seem like improbable friends. For seventy years Weber has been hiding; hiding in full view of everyone. He is a model citizen; a much loved German teacher; an active youth worker; a lonely widower with only a dachshund for company. But unbeknown to his community, he is also a murderer; a former Nazi SS guard. Sage, on the other hand, is a young orphaned baker with a facial disfigurement, who works by night and sleeps by day, deliberately avoiding human contact, burdened by guilt. Is this meeting serendipitous? Or is there something more sinister behind it? After keeping his black secret all these years, what has prompted Josef to confess his past to Sage? And how will she react to his shocking revelation? Or to his request: he wants Sage to help him to die …?

Sage was brought up in a Jewish family (as Picoult herself was). Her grandmother, Minka, is a survivor of the Nazi atrocities and of cancer, who has never told her story … until now. And what a story it is – of depravity and courage, of brutality and love, of forgiveness and revenge, or murder and mercy. The first person account of Minka’s experiences of life in Nazi Germany, in Auschwitz, is told without sentimentality, and is all the more poignant and gripping for that.

In the past, Picoult has been given to overly analysing and revealing the psychology of her characters – in my view, anyway. In The Storyteller, however, she has left the experiences, the actions, the lives, to speak for themselves; a brilliant decision and one I’ve very much taken to heart. But she still manages to summarise profound truths in succinct dialogue:

 ‘When a freedom is taken away from you, I suppose, you recognise it as a privilege, not a right.’

 ‘I could never forgive the Schutzhaftlagerführer for killing my best friend … I mean I couldn’t – literally – because it is not my place to forgive him.’

 ‘If you lived through it (the Holocaust), you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.’

Minka, Sage’s grandmother, the storyteller, is at the core of this story. She lived ‘a remarkable life. She watched her nation fall to pieces; and even when she became collateral damage, she believed in the power of the human spirit. She gave when she had nothing; she fought when she could barely stand; she clung to tomorrow when she couldn’t find footing on the rock ledge of yesterday. She was a chameleon, slipping into the personae of a privileged young girl, a frightened teen, a dreamy novelist, a proud prisoner, an army wife, a mother hen. She became whomever she needed to be to survive, but she never let anyone else define her.’ She has also written a powerful fiction of her own.

Other threads – Josef’s story, Sage’s, Minka’s novel – are woven around and through this emotive core, creating at once an absorbing read, a sobering challenge, a powerful allegory, a warming family saga. And the whole leaves the reader asking: What is forgiveness? What is justice? What would I have done?

Highly recommended.

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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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As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back?

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?

The Midwife's ConfessionTara, 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.

Breaking the SilenceSo 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!

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