Hazel McHaffie

satire

Hands: new and used

Last week I was talking about over-use of my hands during interviews. This week those same hands have been in overdrive in a different kind of way: taking photos, packing picnics … pointing out landmarks, exploring history … playing games, doing girly things … all the fun that lies behind having grandchildren for a holiday. Then to cap it all, my trusty Kenwood Chef went up in smoke (literally!) after thirty plus years of valiant service, so I was back to pounding bread dough manually again. The notion of an extra pair of hands seems more than usually appealing.

Which brings me nicely to the book The Fourth Hand which I read a few weeks ago and haven’t yet told you about.

John Irving has won prizes. Big prizes. Even an Oscar. I’ve read his A Widow for One Year, and seen The Cider House Rules, so I was looking forward to The Fourth Hand. As you know, I’ve been ploughing through a minor mountain of novels about organ transplantation, and such was my confidence in Irving’s literary skill, that I reserved this one till last to savour the flow and style of a master.

But oh dear, what a disappointment, what an anti-climax. I really couldn’t find anything much I liked in Irving’s tale of a hand transplant. Briefly it tells the story of a well known journalist and TV anchorman, Patrick Wallingford, who gets his hand bitten off by a lion in full view of the world watching his news report. Far away in Wisconsin a married woman, Doris Clausen, obsesses about giving her husband’s left hand to ‘the lion man’, whilst in Boston a renowned hand surgeon, Dr Zajac, awaits the opportunity to perform the nation’s first hand transplant.

The blurb says the book ‘seems, at first, to be a comedy, perhaps a satire, almost certainly a sexual farce’ but it is ‘in the end … characteristic of John Irving’s seamless storytelling and further explores some of the author’s recurring themes – loss, grief, love as redemption. But this novel breaks new ground; it offers a penetrating look at the power of second chances and the will to change.’

Hmm, well, that wouldn’t be my summary, I’m afraid. To me the plot is flimsy and unbelievable, the characters are implausible, and to be blunt, I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Is it likely that every woman he meets wants to fall into bed with this one-handed, immature newsreader? Would any sane woman behave as Doris did for the sake of a complete stranger and an unfulfilled wish for motherhood? Would any surgeon be as indiscriminate and absurd as Dr Zajak? I don’t think so. Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking, who am I to dare to criticise the work of a literary giant like Irving? But regardless of my credentials, the fact remains that this novel left me cold. It took all my stubborn obsession about finishing what I start to keep me turning the pages.

But then, towards the end of the story, I found a tiny redeeming feature, a little nugget of truth that gave me pause for reflection. Doris loves The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Patrick has seen the movie but recognises that seeing and reading aren’t the same, so he sets about tackling the book to try to discover what it is that charms Doris. He slowly comes to a humbling conclusion, and he feels ‘like a fool’.

‘He’d tried to invade a book Doris Clausen had loved, and a movie that had (at least for her) some painful memories attached to it. But books, and sometimes movies, are more personal than that; they can be mutually appreciated, but the specific reasons for loving them cannot satisfactorily be shared.

Good novels and films are not like the news, or what passes for the news – they are more than items.They are comprised of the whole range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book …’

I don’t believe I was in any particular kind of mood when I read The Fourth Hand. And I’m pretty confident it was nothing to do with transplant-book overload since this is quite unlike the rest of the books on the topic I’ve read. I simply didn’t like it. It was indeed ‘personal’. No matter how many people laud this work, I cannot ‘imitate’ their emotions. Period.

After writing these comments something still niggled though, so I sneaked across to Amazon to check the reviews from other readers, and there I found a surprising number shared my reservations. Instantly I felt a kind of reassurance, which is paradoxical given what I’ve just said about reading as a subjective experience dependent on many personal factors. Hmmm, again. Am I really as confident in my opinions as I think I am?

In any event, I could still use an extra pair of hands! Oh, and I now have to read The English Patient because I’ve only seen the film.

 

 

 

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The plot thickens

Did you see the news a couple of weeks ago (11 April) about a three-year-old boy who has successfully survived a heart transplant after being kept alive artificially on a Berlin heart machine for 251 days – longer than any other child in Britain? Shortly after he was born, Joe Skerratt was diagnosed with cardiac myopathy – an enlarged and weakened heart. Initially he was treated with medication but when he deteriorated he needed the machine to take over the work of his failing heart. Amazing stuff.

These days my ears prick up as soon as I hear the words ‘transplant’ or ‘organ donation’. And as you know I’m ploughing through a stack of novels that include the subject in some guise or other. Time perhaps to bring you up to date with where I’m at with them, lest you start to suspect this blog is a smokescreen and I’m actually idling on some Caribbean beach. But first a caveat: some of the titles I’m going to mention I really really don’t recommend. I ploughed through them because I need to suss out the potential competition, but you can be more discriminating. (For a sense of my personal assessment shoot across to my Goodreads ratings and reviews.)

I’ve read all except four now and they seem to fall into three categories.

1. There are those that focus on families grappling with tragic circumstances and the impact of organ donation. (eg. Somewhere between Life and Death; One Perfect Day; In a Heartbeat; Stealing Kevin’s Heart; While my Sister Sleeps; Breath; The Household Guide to Dying.) Additional angles are used to provide a narrative thread – the recipients taking on the characteristics of the donor (cellular memory), or families searching for the donor’s identity for various reasons, or unexpected links between the two families. A number of these are geared towards young adults and tend to rather labour the importance of organ donation. And there’s a heavy religious agenda in some of the American ones.

2. Then there are the sci-fi novels, the futuristic and satirical takes on the issue. (eg. Never Let me Go; Heart Seizure; Little Boy Pig; The Samaritan; My Body, My Ashes.) The creation of ‘monsters’ comes into this group. The way-out and highly improbable. Unscrupulous scientists and doctors pushing the boundaries beyond what is ethical. Or mad chases against time and the odds.

3. And thirdly there are the mysteries and thrillers. (eg. Damaged; Blood Work; Coma; Dead Tomorrow; The Midwife’s Confession; Change of Heart.) Individuals and teams conspiring to obtain tissue or organs or indeed whole bodies for personal gain. Apparently this is a live issue in the USA.

I confess I got rather bored with so many books about a single subject. There isn’t much new to excite me in the facts and issues themselves. So the yawn-factor could well be distorting my perspective and judgement. However, analysing the stories is helping me to hone my own novel on this subject.

The first draft of (working title) Over my Dead Body consists of a plausible story centred around a relatively commonplace road traffic accident. But my reading has confirmed a hunch that it needs a second more compelling thread to keep the pages turning. So where do I go from here?

Introduce an element of sci-fi? Nope. Not my bag. Sci-fi can be technically fascinating, and I can admire the brains that project themselves into futuristic possibilities and challenge their readers to ask: Is this a world I would want to see or be part of? I too want to provoke thought and debate, but my personal preference is for the scenarios to be based more on today’s reality.

OK. A thriller then? Well, of all the books I’m most enjoying the medical thrillers with believable insights into the emotions and driving forces of those people caught up in the business of saving lives using transplanted organs. But I’m not sure I have what it takes to sustain this kind of pace, nor whether it would fit with my objectives.

Conclusion? I’m experimenting with an element of mystery and intrigue; weaving in a second more taut storyline of a dark secret that unravels gradually. I’m cautiously optimistic right at this moment but it could all change. It might not work. Or perhaps those last four books will revolutionise my thinking! Watch this space.

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