Hazel McHaffie

Matt Haig

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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Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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