Hazel McHaffie

Saving Sebastian

Baroness Mary Warnock

It’s almost eleven years since I shared a platform with Baroness Mary Warnock, but I’ve never forgotten it. We’d both just published books about assisted dying: hers, An Easeful Death (with Dr Elisabeth MacDonald); mine, Right to Die, and we were appearing together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

She was already very well known, an established and influential figure in the world of philosophy, and author of The Warnock Report on Human Fertility and Embryology, an outspoken and at times rather intimidating person, who had strong opinions of her own. I recall she wasn’t too impressed when I questioned her statement that assisted death was not killing, and dismissed my quibble out of hand. She was sitting in her philosopher’s ivory tower well away from human reality; I was speaking from the viewpoint of a clinician at the sharp end.

Though known for her sharp mind and fearless debating, in great demand for committee work, she was widely criticised for being an ‘instant expert’, for having no truck with those who held strong immovable moral principles, for voicing shockingly derogatory comments based on social class and personal prejudice. Her certainty that she was always right stemmed from her childhood and sense of personal superiority. ‘In my mother’s family,‘ she said, ‘we were brought up to believe we were the best; there was simply no doubt about it and that sort of conviction resists evidence.’ I confess I caved in more than once in the face of her dogmatic assertions, even though in my heart of hearts I disagreed strongly. Somehow her reputation and self-confidence left scant room for challenge, especially from people as far down the food-chain as me!

One of the most outrageous statements she made was, ‘If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service’. She advocated encouraging such people to end their own lives to avoid being ‘a burden‘. To my shame I never did summon the courage to take her to task on that, though I’ve spent years working alongside people with dementia and wholeheartedly supporting efforts to enrich rather than end their lives.

Having said all that, I was touched by her generosity in endorsing my own writing. Emboldened by our brief acquaintance and pleasant exchanges, I rather trepidatiously sent her the draft of my novel, Saving Sebastian, which overlapped with her interest in genetics and embryology, and she was kind enough to endorse it warmly:
‘Problems in medical ethics are not just for doctors but for everyone,’ she wrote. ‘Hazel McHaffie has found a way to bring them before a wide public. You are gripped from the very beginning. but as you turn the pages, you are compelled to think about the issues. It is an excellent formula.’
I forgave her much!

She was made a DBE in 1984, a life peer in 1985, a Companion of Honour in 2017. The last time I saw her in the flesh she was a much diminished figure, so hard of hearing she missed much of what was said, and at times her comments fell like stones into a pond; sad to witness. She died this week, on March 20, aged 94, after a fall, a richly decorated though hugely controversial figure. Perhaps, in the world of medical ethics at least, we need such characters to provoke discussion and sharpen our own opinions.

 

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Future possibilities

There will never be a shortage of subjects for me to write about! I lose tracks of scientific breakthroughs and medical marvels. And today, given the breadth and range of material available, I’m not going to even attempt to link everything I mention to scientific papers – Google the key words and you’ll get the information if you’re interested.

When HIV/AIDS first came to our attention in the 80s there were doomsday predictions of biblical plague proportions and real-life devastating statistics. I was a researcher at the time and saw it, wrote about it, first hand. Then came huge public awareness campaigns … followed by the development of anti-retroviral wonder drugs … then combination therapies, that could hold the disease at bay. Now here we are, with stories of stem cell donations from people with ‘natural immunity’ rendering patients free from the virus. You could weave a pretty complex plot with that one! And in 2019 my file marked HIV/AIDS looks completely different from the slim wallet of 30 years ago.

Inside of Me coverThen there’s the transgender issue. Wow! So many dimensions. About young children wanting to transition. About people wanting to reverse the process; the irreversibility of some therapies. About misleading statistics. Eebie jeebie – how crazily tortuous a plot could you construct in that area. The imagination goes into overdrive. Makes my little sally into that world in Inside of Me, pale into banality.

It’s 41 years since the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was created, and infertility was very much top of my pile when it came to choosing subjects for my set of novels. Now despite widespread opposition, criticism, vilification, stigma, as many as 8 million babies have been born by IVF. And the endless thirst for knowledge and understanding, coupled with a bottomless pit of compassion, drives researchers and clinicians in this area to seek more and more solutions to the problems couples have in conceiving, or avoiding perpetuating deadly genetic diseases. There’s mileage for several more books to follow on from Paternity, Double Trouble and Saving Sebastian. Did you know, for example, that the success rate for assisted fertility is way way higher (50%) than for natural conception (25%) … plenty of scope to work up a story-line there, huh? Imagine a gang of 35-year-old career girls going to the freezer to select artificially-created sperm … or genetically screened/modified embryos … ticking selection boxes along the way for green eyes, athletic ability, fiery temperament …? Endless possibilities!

The statistics on abortion reflect changes in society’s mores and values; programmes like Call the Midwife have increased public awareness of how things have developed in a generation. Add in dating apps, modern career paths, cohabitation, social expectation, fertility statistics … I feel an historical reflective story coming on! I well remember, in the 70s/80s soon after the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced, women coming in for a second, perhaps even third, abortion were looked upon askance. Recent Government figures have highlighted that of almost 68000 abortions carried out in 2017, 1049 were undergoing their fifth abortion and 72 their ninth! And there’s a story behind every one.

Then there’s the horrific topic of female genital mutation … don’t get me started! The recent story of the first person to be convicted in Britain briefly reported in the national press was shocking enough – the little girl was three years old; the mother cut the child herself in her London home; indecent images and animal pornography were involved. I absolutely couldn’t go there with fiction. But … should our collective conscience be prodded?

Resources, caps on the cost of medical and social care … I’m somewhat allergic to numbers, but reading about the human consequences of budgetary restrictions brings out the indignant in me. And might just compel me to write about it if I’m around long enough to get to that file.

Even the topic of assisted dying – a recurring hot potato – has subtly changed since I published my novel on the subject, Right to Die, eleven years ago. The issue’s been described by lawyers for the Royal College of Physicians as ‘one of the most controversial and morally contentious issues in medicine’, but ongoing polls of both medical and public opinion show a definite move towards accepting the need for some change. This might be simply taking a neutral professional stand as against opposing it; or a swing towards legalising some form of assisted suicide in the UK. A novel today could look very different.

Yep, I’m endlessly adding to the possibilities in my files as medicine and science reveal more and more, and society’s tolerances and expectations change. This is just a superficial skim. Anyone out there keen to pick up the gauntlet?

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A lifelong apprenticeship

Wow! I’ve had quite a jolt.

Picture if you will …

… the Canary Islands: brilliant sunshine, millions of years of volcanic activity, vibrant flora, a whistling language, an excellent health service but serious economic struggles …

Fascinating and a real get-away-from-it-all break. But, in the back of my mind, lurks the thought that I have an author appearance shortly after I get back to the UK. Hmm. Best tactic? Jot down a few ideas in idle moments, on the train/plane/ferry, let the topic (‘Well-being’) simmer on the old back burner, but concentrate on the Canarian experience.

Overall strategy? Take the audience up to the bedside of some of my characters, let them listen to the conversations, enter into the minds, of people who are facing challenging, even tragic, choices. Give them a chance to consider the different options themselves. Maybe ruffle their sense of well-being a tiny tad …?

Saving SebastianHow would you feel having a four-year-old dying in front of you, I wonder? Would you agree to create another baby specifically to try to save his life, knowing that many perfectly healthy embryos will probably be destroyed in the process, that this new child might have the same fatal blood disorder too, that it might all be in vain?

How would you react to being told you have a terrible degenerative disease which will certainly destroy your body inch by inch, killing you before you reach your 42nd birthday, your brain fully aware of every ghastly step?

You get the idea.

It’s a long time since I wrote – or indeed read – my earliest books, so I quickly realise I need a crash course on McHaffie’s medical ethical novels. Happily I have several on my Kindle, so I immediately start to update myself. And that’s when I make a sobering discovery. I want to edit them! Hey, why did I write this that way?! But of course, I can’t change it; not now they’re published. Any more than I could change the experience I had of Tenerife, or La Palma, or La Gomera, once the ferry drew away from each in turn.

Why should that surprise me?  It shouldn’t. I’ve moved on, honed certain skills, developed my craft, progressed – hopefully! As Ian Rankin once said; the reason we keep writing is, we’re always trying to improve, to write the perfect story. It’s a lifetime’s apprenticeship.

And each time I embark on a new book, the older ones recede in my mind, much as the islands become hazy and less defined as the ferry powers off across the Atlantic.

New horizons beckon. I’m already scanning the ocean for new excitement, noticing the changes in colour and swell, watching the other passengers, wondering about their lives … scavenging new ideas, creating new connections, forging a new pathway in this fathomless deep that is our world/imagination.

So, it’s been a salutary experience, re-visiting my own earlier novels. I’ve had to forgive myself for the failures and infelicities of the past, cling on to the better aspects, and extract useful messages that might provoke discussion and pique interest when I’m in that other life, in that Scottish library, talking to an audience about ‘Well-being’ and the writing life.

OK, next step? Inject some humour! Don’t want them leaving in tears, never wanting to go to a library again, do we?! And there’s planty to amuse in my books … a fabulous train conductor on the Aberdeen-Penzance Cross-Country run; a minister with holey/holy socks and an all-embracing love; a lab technician who quotes Oscar Wilde to excellent effect … I’m sure they’ll come to my aid. But first, let’s savour every experience these amazing islands have to offer. No need for regret on that score.

 

 

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Best Seller!

Just a quickie to remind you that there are only a few days left of Saving Sebastian at the Kindle Spring Sale price of 99p.

And would you believe it … it’s currently the Number One Best Seller on Amazon’s Medical fiction list. Wahey!  Here’s the evidence.

Amazon bestsellers

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Special offer

STOP PRESS: Good news!

Saving SebastianYou might like to know that the Kindle version of Saving Sebastian is available for just 99p in their Spring Sale. I understand from my publisher that the sale is due to last until 21 April but I can’t guarantee it will.

For easy ordering, click on the link above or go to my Books page on this website.

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Perfect people

Imagine if you’d lost a child to a rare genetic disorder at the age of four … You know that neither your sanity nor your marriage could survive watching another one die … Then along comes a charismatic doctor who offers you … not only eradication of the rogue gene you both carry, but subtle improvements on nature too … if you choose them.

What would you do? (I went part way down this path in researching for my own novel, Saving Sebastian – a ‘designer baby’ with a difference; so of course I’m instantly drawn to the question behind Peter James‘ novel, Perfect People.)

You know enough to realise that tampering with the germline is serious stuff: there’s no going back. You’d be altering something fundamental which will be carried on in future generations. But then … where’s the harm in choosing a child who won’t need much sleep when he grows up? Or who won’t put on too much weight? Or who’s got excellent hand-eye co-ordination? Why not? Future progeny would be grateful to inherit such characteristics, wouldn’t they? You’ll be sensible, of course you will; you won’t be seduced by the idea of genius, or film-star looks, or Olympic medal sporting prowess. You only want what’s best for your child. Like every other normal parent.

Perfect PeopleIn Perfect People,  Dr Leo Detorre promises all this. More than that, he persuades couples that naturally-formed babies will, in 40 years time, have become the ‘genetic underclass’. They owe it to their child to give him/her the advantages of genetic enhancement. Anything less would be a dereliction of their parental responsibility.

Swedish scientist, Dr John Klaesson, and his British wife, Naomi, have every reason to want to eliminate the risk of inherited diseases.  Their little boy Halley died from the consequences of a fatal defect carried by them both. They know they can’t cope with a repeat of that. But they have a one in four risk. Dr Detorre is their only hope.

He maps both parents’ genomes; he lists a shocking multiplicity of defects they are susceptible to. He promises to eradicate all the risks. For an eye-watering sum of money. They’re desperate; prepared to borrow way beyond their means, in order to have one healthy child. A boy. And they’re restrained: Dr Detorre offers them far more than they’re prepared to accept. They simply want a child free from disease with a little advantage or two, and they do a lot of heart searching before allowing even that little enhancement.

Once they’ve set the ball in motion, everything feels surreal. They’re flown to a floating offshore clinic way out in the ocean, isolated from all human contact ‘to avoid any contamination’ of any kind. For tests. For injections. For the conception itself.

But afterwards, back at home, in the humdrum reality of everyday normality, everything starts to assume a quite different perspective. If he’s so clever, why did Dr Detorre get the gender wrong? How come he introduced more than one embryo? – things any ordinary embryologist or fertility specialist knows how to do routinely.

Misgivings ratchet up to a whole new level when sinister things start to happen. A bomb destroys the brain behind the scientific revolution. The Klaesson secret gets out; the world’s media react. The twins start to show weird behaviours, precocious abilities, and worrying physical and psychological anomalies.

Other families treated by Dr Detorre are massacred horribly. A sect called The Disciples of the Third Millenium declare themselves determined to stamp out this work of Satan. And one of the Disciples is stalking the Klaessons.

Tested almost beyond endurance by the twins’ behaviour, John and Naomi are nevertheless devastated when the youngsters vanish, apparently willingly accompanying a murderer. And in the search for their children, they gradually uncover the truth behind Dr Detorre’s work and the appalling consequences for their family.

OK, there are some rather unbelievable features to this sci-fi thriller and some irritating linguistic flaws, but I found it was a real page turner of a book.  And a cautionary tale to boot. Be careful what you wish for! The author says there were times when he thought he’d tackled too complex a topic this time. He did; but for me he pulled it off. I didn’t actually care that the genetic disease was fictional, or that the parents were naive, or the outcome predictable. There’s a price to be paid for sticking too closely to the facts, and I think James made some choices for the sake of dramatic tension that paid off. It’s not a treatise about genetic engineering; it’s a novel! Enjoy!

 

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The price of empathy

Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the novels based on her own family history that became known as The Cazalet Chronicle, (recently serialised on Radio 4) has said that ‘You cannot be a good writer without empathy.‘ Too right, I thought. You have to enter the lives and hearts of your characters, to understand how they tick, how they react, in order to create believable three dimensional people. Fair comment.

I’d go further and say that in my experience, involvement with your own fictional characters means you pay quite a hefty price as their creator. You feel their pain. You struggle with them. You grieve with them. They keep you awake at night.Right to Die

This phenomenon was at its most acute for me when I was writing Right to Die, the story of a young man who develops Motor Neurone Disease. It so happened that several members of my family were quite seriously ill at the time – indeed one of them actually died in reality on the day I ended the life of my main protagonist. Traumatic in more ways than one. I was a wrung out rag for ages after completion of the book.

Double TroubleThen there was Double Trouble (a tale of one family’s attempts to overcome infertility). Not only I, but a number of readers have been seriously upset by the violence done to the main character in that. One of my colleagues in the Institute of Medical Ethics said he couldn’t talk to me about it for a week; he had to recover first. I really really didn’t want it to happen myself, but it did. I was there. I was simply recording what took place in that bedroom. I was distressed twice over: both witnessing it and again describing it.

Oh, and I still shed a tear at the end of Saving Sebastian Saving Sebastianwhen Sebastian’s mother appears at a medical conference to tell her story and reveals an unexpected twist in the tale. It’s my happiest book to date, I’ve read it countless times, and I know what happens, yet it still tugs at my heart strings.

But in a way I see this as some kind of a barometer. If I don’t care about these characters how can I expect other people to? After all, I conceived them, nurtured them through the gestatory period, and gave birth to them. I tracked their thoughts and actions intimately. So of course I empathise with their agony – perhaps even more than their ecstacy. I was there at their end too, so naturally I stand at their graves and weep …

… except that … I must confess …

Oh dear, I’ve remained dry eyed throughout the writing of Over my Dead Body. Hmm. Should I be worried? Should I even share such a revelation?

This latest novel has the usual quota of tragedy, moral dilemmas, and heartbreak. It’s about a troubled woman, Carole, who loses her daughter and granddaughter in a car crash. It includes harrowing decisions about whether or not to use their organs. It reveals tense relationships, sibling rivalries, haunting secrets. We also peep into the lives of those struggling with life-limiting conditions who might or might not be saved as a consequence of Carole’s choices. In fact, the characters were initially so burdened emotionally that a number of my early reviewers and critics strongly suggested – even begged me to tone down the problems. One said she felt ‘coshed’; two said they cried throughout; others said they felt drained. So I did.

But me?  Ahhhhh, therein lies the issue. I’ve lain awake listening to Carole and Guy and Oliver and Sarah and all the others. I’ve worried – agonized even – with them, I’ve woken stressed by their quandaries, but no, I haven’t cried with them.

So … am I getting hard in my old age? Am I inured to tragedy? Or am I unmoved by these particular characters? If so, that blows my empathy theory right out of the water. Help!

Are the characters one dimensional? Or wooden? Or unsympathetic? Are the situations and dialogue implausible? Well, I’ve had more than the usual amount of positive feedback for this book: so I’m pretty confident that readers do care and they do weep.

So it’s me then. I can assure you, Ms Howard, I do empathise with my characters. I do. I DO! I must then modify my declaration: it is not necessary for the author to be reduced to tears. Is that OK with you?

PS. For your eyes only … until the final manuscript goes for publication I shall continue my vigilance and analysis … and keep worrying!

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Official – in possession of a press pass!

August always promised to be a busy month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival – officially the ‘largest public celebration of the written word in the world‘ – is one of the highlights in my literary calendar. And it’s on my doorstep! This year it runs from 11-27th, but I always book tickets way in advance, as soon as they’re officially available, and even then some aren’t obtainable – an ongoing mystery to me.

But this year the month has just become a whole lot more exciting because I’ve been invited to be one of a team of official reporters at it! How cool is that? But … How come? I hear you cry. Good question.

Well, earlier this year the ESRC Genomics Forum organised an evening Salon where I was interviewed about my novel Saving Sebastian and the issues it deals with (watchable here). They subsequently asked me to write a guest post on their blog Genotype, which I duly did (here). And on the strength of that these same kind folk have now invited me to dip a toe into the dubious world of journalistic reporting for a fortnight. They were lovely people to work with, so I’m chuffed to be collaborating with them on this venture.

Basically what it entails is attending events – most of which I was going to anyway – and then blogging about them on Genotype. I even get a press pass! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

In odd moments when I’m not fulfilling all the other commitments-that-I-wouldn’t-have-taken-on-had-I-known-about-the-extra-blogging, I’m trying to read a few of the books beforehand so I don’t come across as a complete twat. Time will tell.

My Beautiful GenomeOh, before I forget, I must share a gem with you from one of them (My Beautiful Genome) which I came across yesterday: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components.’ The author is a self-confessed specialist in sarcasm and bordering-on-cruel-honesty, but I can think of several situations where this knowledge could be applied with great satisfaction. OK, so I have a cruel streak too. I blame my genome.

But for now … well, this afternoon I and my unique double helix are off to give ‘a taste’ of Saving Sebastian as part of the Writers at the Fringe series of evenings organised by Blackwell’s. They’re free events but ticketed; five authors each evening, 6-8pm every Thursday in August.

To get a sense of the event and what works, I went to listen to the four authors and a songwriter who kicked off the series last Thursday. The line up included names like Sara Sheridan and Louise Welsh – and Iain Banks, probably the most famous, is listed for week 3 – so hats off to Blackwell’s for attracting real talent. To find 25 authors willing to commit to this in August is no mean feat in itself.

Is there any better city to be in than Edinburgh in the summer if you’re a writer or book lover? I doubt it.

 

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Changes and developments

Good news to report this week.

My latest novel, Saving Sebastian, is now available in Kindle form. Wahey! Within weeks of its publication in paperback form too, and entirely down to my publisher, no effort on my part. Way to go!Saving SebastianAnd my new improved website is now live, looking fresh and bright. The folk at Creative Infusion were busy transferring it as I tanked down to the Westcountry. I’m indebted to Keren and Tim for their work on this. And to Ben, my personal technical guru.

I hope you like the changes. Do have a wander through the pages and if you encounter any glitches, or have suggestions for improvements, let me know. It’s for you (at the moment I still know who I am and what I’m up to!), so I want it to meet your requirements.

Travelling at Easter time can be horrendous but we managed to avoid the worst mayhem on the M5 and to enjoy the fabulous scenery of the lesser roads and the gorgeous sunsets on our way.

As I’ve said before, writing often takes a back seat when I’m away, but this weekend I actually managed to use travelling time effectively to develop that additional elusive story line for the current novel – I’ve been furiously scribbling in notebooks to capture the thoughts before they are lost forever.

Oh, and I managed to slot in reading two more novellas about organ transplantation. Odd how many short stories I’ve found on this subject (most I have to admit, not well written). Is it a feature of the subject appealing to writers, or the ease of downloading electronic books, I wonder?

Waiting for me on my return was a comment from a lady who’d just read three of my novels, saying that the ending of Double Trouble was just too heartbreaking. It is too. I’ve wept over it many times myself – and I know what happens! I tried my best to change it but the characters just wouldn’t let me. I saw the tragedy happen; I had to record it faithfully. At the time when I sent it out to a raft of critics for comment before submitting it to the publisher, one of them (a professor of medical ethics) said it took him a week to recover enough to talk to me about it. But what these reactions tell me is that these readers really cared about the characters – enough to be upset; and I like to think that means I’m doing that part of my job effectively at least. Feel free to disabuse me of this notion if you consider I’m deluding myself.

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As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back?

Time to return to the topic of that sticker I mentioned a few weeks ago, as seen on The Midwife’s Confession: ‘As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back.’ Similar to the one on my own latest novel: ‘If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie.’ Seeming even more relevant now because at my book launch last week I was introduced as ‘Scotland’s Jodi Picoult’!

Question is: Is the comparison a good or not so good idea?

I confess I’ve only just discovered Diane Chamberlain, the author in question. My daughter gave me one of her books for Christmas, and I bought a second one on the strength of the blurb on the cover. I read them both in four days during the Christmas holiday break.

The resemblance is obvious from the outset – before you even open the book. The pretty feminine covers. The personal challenge: ‘A lie will save one family, the truth will destroy another. Which would you choose?‘ Both very Jodi Picoult.

So what about inside? Was this author as good? Would I be due a refund? Should I be glad or sad that my own latest book has a similar slogan?

The Midwife's ConfessionTara, Emerson and Noelle are close friends, so the two younger girls are devastated when Noelle is found dead after taking an overdose of pills. But as they sort her possessions and talk to other people, facts come to light which show them that the Noelle they knew was a fiction.

When they unearth a letter revealing a hideous secret, they are torn by indecision. If they tell the truth it would destroy a family; but by maintaining the lie they would be perpetuating the grief of another. Add to this a twelve year old with recurring leukaemia loaded with steroids and fighting for her life; a dead baby; surrogate pregnancies; and you have a flavour of the intense emotional and psychological undertones of this story.

The multiple first person voices style is very Picoultesque, but there the similarities end. No court scenes or legal ding-dongs. No stereotyping. No homespun philosophising. Indeed, Chamberlain’s psychology is altogether much more convincing and less contrived than Picoult’s. Not surprisingly perhaps since she’s a trained psychotherapist.

Breaking the SilenceSo what of the second of her books that I read? Breaking the Silence is written very differently. All in the third person too. Instantly I feel a lift of spirits. Here’s an author who rings the changes. Who’s not formulaic or predictable. No rut in sight. My kind of gal.

The story weaves between the present for astronomer, Laura Brandon, and her daughter, Emma, and the past life of former nurse, Sarah Tolley, now an old lady with Alzheimer’s.

Moments before his death, Laura’s father makes her promise to visit Sarah, who’s in a retirement complex, but whom she’s never even heard of before. As a consequence of her doing so, however, Laura’s husband commits suicide. Her five year old daughter, Emma, witnesses the shooting and now refuses to talk and is clearly terrified of men. On the advice of a child therapist, Laura contacts Emma’s biological father, Dylan Geer, a hot air balloonist, who was unaware of her existence but becomes mesmerised by this mute child.

But as this father-daughter relationship blossoms, Laura becomes increasingly obsessed by the stories emerging from Sarah’s fading memory. She starts to unravel a tale of love, despair and a terrible evil that links them all.

Chamberlain’s training and experience in psychology have given her a genuine understanding of how people tick, how relationships work, helping to authenticate the actions and reactions of her characters. They ring true. Having had to observe professional confidences herself (like me), I think she understands the capacity of some people in positions of trust to bear a hefty burden of secrets, and the inability of others to do so. Lies and deceptions play a large part in both books.

Chamberlain says of her novels that they are ‘part suspense, part mystery, part romance and one hundred percent family drama.’ A fair assessment. The suspense and mystery elements keep the pages turning effortlessly. I was particularly gripped by the stories of the CIA government approved mind-control experiments that took place in the 50s and 60s in psychiatric hospitals in the US, about which I’d heard but never understood in this intensely moving way before. No wonder this was the inspiration for Breaking the Silence. Very clever.

But I must confess the coincidences in both books stretched my credulity somewhat, especially in The Midwife’s Confession. OK, they tidied up the story lines but they lacked plausibility for me.

So, will I be reading more Chamberlain? Probably. (And keeping my fingers crossed that she doesn’t pall like Picoult.) Will I be claiming a refund? Happily, no.

What then of that controversial sticker: did it help or hinder? Well, it meant the book caught in my antennae initially, which was good. Although for anyone who really doesn’t care for Picoult, it could have had an unwarrantedly negative impact. So swings and roundabouts there maybe. It also made me compare the two authors throughout, which had pluses and minuses for Chamberlain. But for me overall Chamberlain came out of it well.

And for Saving Sebastian? At the moment the jury’s still out. Time will tell. And your input … please!

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