Hazel McHaffie

paedophilia

The Last Thing I Remember

Having just been challenged by a return to psychological thrillers (as reported last week), I was in the mood to test my lockdown mettle by a bit more skirting around the edges of insanity. Deborah Bee‘s thriller, The Last Thing I Remember jumped out at me.

The author’s unusual background intrigued me too: fashion editor, magazine writer, creative marketing director. Hmmm.

There are two narrators alternating chapter by chapter:
Sarah is in an ICU with an extremely serious brain trauma, in an induced coma, following a supposed mugging. Since there are no outward signs of her consciousness returning, and she’s unable to open her eyes or move a single muscle, the staff, her family and the police all tend to be indiscreet in her presence. She discovers a number of facts: there is little expectation of recovery; she could be in a persistent vegetative state or locked-in; her husband Adam is dead; her father loves her dearly but her mother is more interested in returning to her suburban life. She’s also painfully aware that she’s being threatened – by a man who smuggles himself into the hospital claiming to be her brother. But she doesn’t have a brother …

Kelly is a bolshie, foul-mouthed teenager, from a seedy London secondary school, Sarah’s next door neighbour, and now a constant visitor at her bedside. Why? Breaking the habit of a lifetime, she reveals more and more of her own story as well as Sarah’s. We see a formidably tough, strong kid who has learned the hard way how to fend for herself in the face of cruelty, injustice and danger, who has her own moral code, her own way of seeking justice. Her friendship with Sarah is an unlikely partnership based on a shared understanding, and a determination to win through against the odds.

As the hours and days pass, Sarah, trapped in her unresponsive body, gradually pieces her own narrative together, coupling overheard conversations with flashes of returning memory. Kelly is dogged in her efforts to bring Sarah back to a sentient life; she has her own reasons for wanting to communicate with her friend and mentor. Together their contrasting voices tell the tale … a tale involving dark issues: bullying, gang crime, domestic violence, paedophilia. And the emerging picture highlights the ripple effect that can, in the end, destroy lives and wreck families; how easy it is for a moral compass to swing away from true north. In the same circumstances, would any of us do better?

I confess I wasn’t a fan of the repeated use of the f-word, or ‘like’, or repetitive phrases, in Kelly’s sections, but I could admire the plotting and development of the characters in this debut novel. It certainly held my attention and offered real distraction. Thank you, Deborah Bee; you were part of this week’s therapy!

 

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Children in trouble

Eh dear, why did I decide to write about pathological parenting? It’s causing me a fair few troubled nights, I can tell you. I’m currently trying to get inside the skin of children … parents … professionals … involved in these disturbing situations. And boy, is it harrowing!i There’s a heavy cloud hanging over me just reading about these traumatic experiences.

With all this in mind I was instantly drawn to three novels by Susan Lewis which I discovered in a charity shop quite by chance on my way to a hospital appointment. I zipped through the first two chapters while I waited to be called.

I’ve always marvelled at the ability of social workers to bear the burden of troubled families where parents may not be the best people to look after their offspring. Deciding when that line is crossed, taking them away … dealing with criticism whichever way they go, threats, physical harm … I’m not made of that kind of courage and stamina, that’s for sure. So it was profoundly disturbing to walk alongside overworked and under-appreciated Alex Lake as she lurches from problem family to problem family in No Child of Mine.

Alex is a social worker, passionate about protecting children from those who mean them harm. In No Child of Mine, there’s a veritable A-Z of toxic situations: abandonment, alcoholism, broken relationships, desertion, drug addiction, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers, mental illness, murder, paedophilia, physical abuse, sexual violation …! Yoiks! How do social workers ever manage to switch off? How do they preserve professional barriers? If they don’t care, are they in the right job? If they do care, what price do they pay for emotional connection? How do they cope with being principal scapegoats for the press and public? If, on top of that, they carry the additional burden of an horrific history of their own, as Alex does, what then?

Challenging tales to say the least. Taut, sinister, intense. I wanted to wrap Alex herself up in a comfort blanket and smuggle her away to a safe place, never mind the children! Small wonder that Susan Lewis found this one of the hardest stories to tell (… caution there for me!). And we’re left wondering if the fragile solution at the end can possibly hold. Which is why the author chose to continue the story in a sequel: Don’t Let Me Go. Since both books are a door-stopping 580+ pages long, I guess it’s lucky for us she split the story into two parts!

By now Alex has reinvented herself as Charlotte Nicholls and moved to the other side of the world. Life in New Zealand in a new family helps to heal deep wounds, but then suddenly, dramatically, her entire world is blown apart. Do pure motives ever excuse illegal actions? Should a vulnerable child become a victim all over again just to ensure the paperwork is all shipshape? What price is too high in the search for justice? I was on tenterhooks to find out the fate of a terrified and traumatised four-year-old. How would she react to being ripped from the heart of a family who loved her so deeply? And handed to a series of strangers, strangers who held none of the keys to the doors that protected her from her own private hell? And how would the law deal with a professional who had knowingly flouted its diktats? I’m relieved that we got to hear how the situation was resolved, although it’s sobering to realise that neither Chloe/Ottilie nor Charlotte/Alex can ever erase the traumas of their early lives.

I might well quibble about some dubious elements of this story – there are issues with time frames and professional boundaries – but such is the compelling nature of the storyline that I found myself well able to suspend disbelief in order to focus on the underlying messages. And as a result I have even more respect for the brave souls who spend their lives working for the good of these vulnerable children, too often unseen and unsung – like our emergency services dealing with this terrible spate of atrocities and tragedies. And for authors like Susan Lewis who help us to understand in our hearts as well as our brains.

NB. The third book, Stolen, didn’t resonate in the same way and I found the story line too far fetched to be plausible. But since the subject matter is less relevant to my own character development or research, nothing lost there.

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