Hazel McHaffie

physical health

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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Physical and mental health

If you’ve been in or near a certain town south of Edinburgh in the early mornings in the last few weeks you might have seen an aging but very upright figure (pelvis tilted, feet rolling, arms pistoning) stomping valiantly through the driving snow, or briskly circuiting the parks and quiet housing estates and streets. Yep, that’ll be me!

my running shoesFor too long I’ve been spending ridiculously long hours glued to the desk; immobile in my concentration. But this year I’ve resolved to rectify matters and get my daily exercise in the form of a power walk, aided and abetted by the gift of this brand new pair of super-duper training shoes (thanks, Ros).

With creaking joints and a family history of arthritis I had to rule out running or jogging; power walking is kinder and less jarring. Head high, chin parallel to the ground, eyes focused 20′ ahead, stomach muscles and buttocks tight, arms swinging naturally, feet parallel and a shoulder-width apart … it’s a lot to concentrate on at first.

But already I’m impressed by the consequences – both physical and mental. Far from eating up valuable working time, the fresh air and circulatory boost is improving my efficiency all round. And I’ve solved several questions relating to the plot in my novel as I’ve tramped. When yours are the first footprints in the pristine snow there aren’t many interruptions and the mind is free to soar.

Initially visitors to my blog said they wanted me to share hints and tips about a writer’s life. Well, this week’s one is a confession: I’ve been far too lax about my physical health, deeming extra time at the computer churning out words of more importance. Wrong. Perhaps if I name and shame myself today it’ll be all the spur I need when the rain is coming down in torrents and the wind is screaming in from Siberia – which it was last week. (Boy, did I feel righteous when I got back!)

There are sure to be those who are cynical about the claim that I’m working as I pound the pavements. But what does it matter? I’m not answerable to anyone else. It’s one of the immeasurable delights of being a freelance writer. As long as the books keep coming, who cares where or when I do what I do?

NB. It’s only fair to report that, for the first time, this morning there was no snow or frost. Not a vestige. Indeed the sun was shining brightly. And yes, it was all well before 9am.

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