Hazel McHaffie

reading as therapy

The Vanishing Year

Well, I can’t imagine many people will have been sorry to see 2020 vanish into the mists of history; some indeed are willing 2021 away now, given the dire statistics and predictions. A thousand deaths each day in the UK; a total now exceeding 80,000 – the worst statistics in Europe; 2 million lives lost worldwide. Our NHS struggling to cope; long term problems accruing with the overall health of the nation.

Watching this horror emerging, we’ve all had to find ways of keeping hope alive and maintaining mental well-being. Icy conditions make even outdoor exercise treacherous, another lockdown forces us to stay at home … Eeh dear! Not surprisingly, for me – as well as countless others – books have played a major part in this struggle. It’s well recognised they offer escape and a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Indeed, several people who took advantage of our pandemic bookcase went so far as to say books had saved their sanity.

Not surprising then, that one novel should pop into my head as we watched 2020 disappear in our rear view mirrors: this thriller, The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti. Apposite title, but nothing to do with the pandemic, so forgive the tenuous link.

Sometimes I feel as if I am made up almost entirely of secrets.‘ That pretty much sums up the main protagonist, Zoe Whittaker.

Outwardly, Zoe has an enviable life – not yet thirty, a fabulous Manhattan home, a rich and charming husband, influence, looks, wealth, connections. But untethered, with too little to do. She feels like a marble in a huge jar, suffocating under the sense that she is accomplishing nothing. Useless, apart from her charity work supporting orphaned and disadvantaged children.

What’s more, in spite of her privileged life, she is haunted by her past, living in fear of being recognised. Because five years ago, Zoe wasn’t Zoe at all. And even her husband Henry doesn’t know her real name. Nor that she was penniless, unable to afford to bury her own mother, until that is, she became a drug dealer, addicted herself to pills and drink, peddling her wares in the presence of children. Until she confessed all to the police, testifying against two human traffickers to a grand jury. Before vanishing.

And now an attempt has been made on the life of the reinvented Zoe. Her home has been ransacked. Her credit card is missing. Someone from her past has come back for her. Threats are being made.

The old classic trademarks are there – control, manipulation, layers of issues, rags-to-riches, fear for life. And the plotting is so devious that, once you know the truth, you want to go back and read it again to see all the clues you missed first time around. An excellent diversion. And a good illustration of how books can give us respite from the stresses of real life, transport us into a different world and time and place – an invaluable bonus during this time of national crisis and mental fragility.

Speaking of a different world and being transported … this opportunity to tramp in a winter wonderland does wonders for my own mental health, too. And yep, it’s well within the current rules of staying local!

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Stress busting!

I’ve been reminded all over again this week of the importance of books in the nation’s health; never, I suspect, has that need been greater than now when a pandemic is threatening our very foundations and security.

It’s been an uncharacteristically stressful week in my own little world, most of it stemming from the vagaries of technology. Frightening how much we depend on the internet and all things electronic in our everyday lives, isn’t it? Being without connections feels like working with one and a half broken arms.

But I know that my personal stresses are as nothing compared with those of countless others during this time of Covid. The BBC wheeled out some big guns in the world of psychiatry during the past few days, who all tell us about the abnormally high incidence of worrying symptoms for mental illness, symptoms sufficiently serious to warrant medical intervention under normal circumstances.

Well, I’ve always been acutely aware of the fine dividing line between normal and abnormal when it comes to mental health. I rapidly but determinedly side-stepped psychiatry in my training, even though the way the mind works and its link with physical health fascinate me. And I’ve never forgotten the patient who first alerted his family to pathological disease when he started cutting his sausages lengthwise … but that’s another story. This week, when things started unravelling for me, it was time to segue into active stress-management mode.

Aromatherapy, mental puzzles and games, exercise, relaxation techniques, helping others less fortunate … the whole gamut came into play. And breathe … And relax …

But of course, books remain one of my main go-to resources. There’s nothing to beat losing yourself in another world. And in this context all I need is something unexacting but gripping. Time to turn to a tried and tested author: Harlan Coben.

I have a stack of his books on my shelves for exactly this kind of situation; these are just a selection, collected over many years. First off the shelf was Run Away.

First page, opening paragraph  …
Simon sat on a bench in Central Park – in Strawberry Fields to be more precise – and felt his heart shatter … he stared straight ahead, blinking, devastated …

and I’m already asking who, what, why, when?

His once lovely daughter Paige – who ran away from her comfortable, professional, stable, ordered family life, to shack up with a criminal and wallow in addiction, has been seen busking in that very park where Simon sits with his heart splintering into fragments. Watching her. He’s appalled by what he sees: a malodorous, strung out bag of bones with matted hair and yellow teeth and a cracked voice. Trickster, manipulator, thief. And that encounter leads him deep into the dark and dangerous underworld that swallowed her up – guns, violence, murder, drugs …
because if someone hurts your daughter, a father has an obligation to stop him, no matter what.
But when the man who took her to this hellish place is murdered, Paige vanishes. He’s lost her again.

A second plot line shows a series of young men being targeted and killed. Why? What’s the connection? I twigged the ‘what’ by P167, and the ‘who’ by P194, but not the ultimate ‘why’… P319. Kept me turning the pages. Better still, it crept close to my own field of interest – genetic inheritance, infertility, adoption, ethics … now you’re talking my language!

And all the threads don’t fully come together until the epilogue. The work of a devilishly clever mind. And balm to my troubled one.

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