Hazel McHaffie

psychotherapy

Serendipidy

It’s odd how often, when you’ve got something on your mind, lots of things feed into it, isn’t it?

My own current novel centres around the loving but dysfunctional Grayson family. Dad, Victor, has vanished and his neatly folded clothes are found on a beach where he used to take his young daughter, India, to play. The police are confident he took his own life. Case closed. So how can it be that India is convinced she heard his voice on Kings Cross station seven years later? And if he is still alive, what possible reason can he have to remain away from the daughter he loved so devotedly?

I guess that makes me super-sensitive to stories where people vanish without trace at the moment. But it was only when I was trying to devour all my Diane Chamberlain novels before Christmas that this one came to my attention: The Silent Sister.

The Silent SisterTeenager Lisa MacPherson is a prodigiously gifted violinist whose talent is fostered by the best mentors money can buy. She has the world at her feet. So why did she suddenly disappear? Who was the mysterious teacher who wrecked her ability? What made her shoot her first teacher dead? Did she really choose to commit suicide in a frozen lake rather than go to prison? And if not, where is she now?

Her sister Riley, who was two at the time of Lisa’s disappearance, has grown up believing Lisa was so depressed she couldn’t go on; that’s what she was always told. It’s not till she’s grown up and sorting out the family house after her father’s death, that she stumbles on newspaper cuttings that tell a very different tale, and she begins to unravel a series of clues darker and more tortured than she ever bargained for. Her whole life seems to have been built upon lies.

The plot is well structured and certainly keeps the pages turning. Plenty of twists in the tale; plenty of intriguing characters; plenty of secrets and deceptions. And true to her background as a psychotherapist, Chamberlain delves into troubled minds and convoluted thinking with consummate ease. The needles flashed and the Christmas charity knitting grew apace as I flew through this book.

And now the season of concerts and school productions and dance shows is upon us. There’s something rather glorious about the spirit that drives teachers/church leaders to produce these events year after year in spite of the dire happenings in the world as well as on our doorstep – this time terrorist attacks in sundry places; floods of unheard of ferocity; Britain sending planes to bomb Syria, the Forth Road Bridge closed for weeks causing chaos on the roads in this area … the list goes on and on. And yet these innocent voices carol ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to all men.’ Bless them.

Dancing on the EdgeI know some people will scoff, despairing of a God in all this chaos. It’s the age old conundrum: if he exists, why does he allow such suffering? Which brings me to another book I’ve just finished reading: Richard Holloway‘s Dancing on the Edge. It’s not looking at this question per se, but it is addressed to the doubting, the wounded, the excluded, the escapees who feel marginalised and disenchanted. I don’t always agree with Holloway’s thinking – goodness, the ex-bishop doesn’t always agree with himself! – but in this book he talks a lot of sense: compassion is a more important response to human behaviour than contempt. Faith should be a way of living with questions without being afraid. If only there was more compassion in the world and people could learn to tolerate difference, the world would be a safer, happier place. Keep singing, children!

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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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Occupational hazard

Heebie jeebie! Talk about illusions shattered …

After a five-month enforced ‘sabbatical’ I’ve been yearning for my old life. Odd, isn’t it, how once you have time for recreational pursuits they lose some of their appeal? Anyway, recently I decided to try to winkle my way back into the world of my next novel. After all, I want to be on the starting blocks ready for a quick get away once my heart is fixed; best to get into the zone at least, and start limbering up, I thought.

Top of my to-do pile is a book by leading authority in anorexia, psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. He has an excellent reputation in the USA so I’d been saving him for a special moment in the process. Now might be the right time. I’d be in safe hands. As Levenkron says himself, Anatomy of Anorexia aims to ‘demystify this life-ruining disease.’ Exactly what I need. It should help me inch myself back into the thinking of a young girl enmeshed in this dangerous practice, and home in on any errors in my understanding so far.

Off I went.

Anatomy of Anorexia

Well, this author is indeed a hands-on expert in the subject … tick. He writes well … tick. He holds the attention easily … tick. He intersperses authentic stories of anorexics with credible advice … tick. He explains in understandable language the origins, psychology, pathology, manifestations and management of the illness … tick. So well does he do so in fact that I found myself engrossed … overly identifying … and slowly drowning in all the horror of fractured relationships and distorted thinking and devious tactics and compulsions and young lives spiraling into destruction; even all the worries that burden the therapists. Seeing in stark relief all my own hang ups and obsessions. Yep, I was back in that tortured place I found myself reduced to after reading 30 novels on the subject.

Conclusion: this subject is bad for my personal health!

Time to get out and smell the crocuses!

Crocuses

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