Hazel McHaffie

Susan Lewis

Nothing new under the sun

Big sigh!

Publishing anything – a letter/article in a newspaper, a research paper, a novel – is always subject to time. Will someone else pip me to the post? Will I appear to be a plagiarist rather than an original thinker? Two incidents have stirred that old anxiety for me recently.

It’s a while since I read a novel which explores an ethical issue in my own sphere of interest, so I was intrigued by Susan Lewis’ 2017 book, Hiding in Plain Sight, especially when I kept reading and found her story overlaps with no less than three of my own novels.

* One of her principal characters is Penny Lawrence who led a disturbed childhood before running away aged 14. In Over my Dead Body (2013), I tried to get inside the mind of a child who struggles to relate to her family, and a mother who agonises over her own response to her child.
* Penny Lawrence gets involved in the world of selling babies to infertile couples. I asked a lot of what-if questions about surrogate pregnancy in Double Trouble (2005).
* When Penny Lawrence meets up with her mother and sister almost thirty years later, all three are forced to face the fractures in their family lives foursquare. In my current novel, Killing me Gently, I’m delving into the effect parents’ and children’s behaviour and emotions can have on family cohesion and integrity.

And curiously one of the titles I considered for my book was Killing in Plain Sight.

But there the similarities end. Susan Lewis’ take on these issues, her writing style, her whole approach, are completely different from mine. Character and plot tend to be far darker, the psyche more tortured, the secret lives more sinister. She’s quick to reassure us that her books are not intended to leave us feeling frightened or miserable but they do dabble in disturbing and sensitive subjects – in this case family tragedy and mental illness. I too deal with sensitive and troubling issues, I have even been known to end on a sad note, but I do aim to have redeeming features in my characters, and to leave lots of breathing space for the reader to form his/her own opinion on the rights and wrongs of what happens.

There’s ample room for both of us to be writing on these issues, I think.

So hopefully this same maxim will apply in the case of the new Sunday evening drama, The Cry, which started this week on BBC1. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the trailers started just after I finished my latest edit of Killing me Gently. Difficult to predict the degree of overlap at the moment but there are uncanny similarities.

I’ve never seen so many flash-backs and flash-forwards before, but we know this is about a young mum (played by Jenna Coleman aka Queen Victoria!) struggling with a fractious baby who vanishes mysteriously, and now the mum’s on trial for something baby-related. The series will be finished before my book comes out, so if push comes to shove I can always tweak my own plot if necessary, but of course, I devoutly hope it won’t be. Months, if not years, of blood, sweat and tears have gone into creating and realising this psychological thriller, getting it balanced, making the point.

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Children in trouble

Eh dear, why did I decide to write about pathological parenting? It’s causing me a fair few troubled nights, I can tell you. I’m currently trying to get inside the skin of children … parents … professionals … involved in these disturbing situations. And boy, is it harrowing!i There’s a heavy cloud hanging over me just reading about these traumatic experiences.

With all this in mind I was instantly drawn to three novels by Susan Lewis which I discovered in a charity shop quite by chance on my way to a hospital appointment. I zipped through the first two chapters while I waited to be called.

I’ve always marvelled at the ability of social workers to bear the burden of troubled families where parents may not be the best people to look after their offspring. Deciding when that line is crossed, taking them away … dealing with criticism whichever way they go, threats, physical harm … I’m not made of that kind of courage and stamina, that’s for sure. So it was profoundly disturbing to walk alongside overworked and under-appreciated Alex Lake as she lurches from problem family to problem family in No Child of Mine.

Alex is a social worker, passionate about protecting children from those who mean them harm. In No Child of Mine, there’s a veritable A-Z of toxic situations: abandonment, alcoholism, broken relationships, desertion, drug addiction, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers, mental illness, murder, paedophilia, physical abuse, sexual violation …! Yoiks! How do social workers ever manage to switch off? How do they preserve professional barriers? If they don’t care, are they in the right job? If they do care, what price do they pay for emotional connection? How do they cope with being principal scapegoats for the press and public? If, on top of that, they carry the additional burden of an horrific history of their own, as Alex does, what then?

Challenging tales to say the least. Taut, sinister, intense. I wanted to wrap Alex herself up in a comfort blanket and smuggle her away to a safe place, never mind the children! Small wonder that Susan Lewis found this one of the hardest stories to tell (… caution there for me!). And we’re left wondering if the fragile solution at the end can possibly hold. Which is why the author chose to continue the story in a sequel: Don’t Let Me Go. Since both books are a door-stopping 580+ pages long, I guess it’s lucky for us she split the story into two parts!

By now Alex has reinvented herself as Charlotte Nicholls and moved to the other side of the world. Life in New Zealand in a new family helps to heal deep wounds, but then suddenly, dramatically, her entire world is blown apart. Do pure motives ever excuse illegal actions? Should a vulnerable child become a victim all over again just to ensure the paperwork is all shipshape? What price is too high in the search for justice? I was on tenterhooks to find out the fate of a terrified and traumatised four-year-old. How would she react to being ripped from the heart of a family who loved her so deeply? And handed to a series of strangers, strangers who held none of the keys to the doors that protected her from her own private hell? And how would the law deal with a professional who had knowingly flouted its diktats? I’m relieved that we got to hear how the situation was resolved, although it’s sobering to realise that neither Chloe/Ottilie nor Charlotte/Alex can ever erase the traumas of their early lives.

I might well quibble about some dubious elements of this story – there are issues with time frames and professional boundaries – but such is the compelling nature of the storyline that I found myself well able to suspend disbelief in order to focus on the underlying messages. And as a result I have even more respect for the brave souls who spend their lives working for the good of these vulnerable children, too often unseen and unsung – like our emergency services dealing with this terrible spate of atrocities and tragedies. And for authors like Susan Lewis who help us to understand in our hearts as well as our brains.

NB. The third book, Stolen, didn’t resonate in the same way and I found the story line too far fetched to be plausible. But since the subject matter is less relevant to my own character development or research, nothing lost there.

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Critical reading

A couple of months ago someone gave me a book with the comment: ‘I think this is your kind of thing.’

Well, I can see her point.

The said novel deals with or skirts around an impressive number of meaty issues: inherited diseases, fatal illness, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, assisted death, parental loss and grief, infertility, infanticide, child abduction, cot death … My kind of subjects.

It has the strap line: It’s every mother’s worst nightmare … My kind of hook.

PaternityThe blurb on the back cover lets me know that it’s about tragedy striking a young mother, it’s a tear-jerker, and involves secrets and betrayal … My kind of storyline. In fact it’s about a baby with a rare recessive gene disorder and all that that implies: an angle I even used in one of my own novels, Paternity, some ten years ago. So, yes indeed, it does sound like my kind of reading.

The ChoiceWhat then was this book? The Choice by Susan Lewis.

I’ve been pegging away fairly relentlessly at my own writing and marketing and publicity tasks (yawn yawn) so I decided to take a break and a little light relief on Monday and Tuesday this week. The Choice was top of my tbr pile.

It kept me turning the pages certainly, I wanted to know how things panned out for Nikki and Spence and their baby, what dark secret Nikki’s parents were harbouring. But I was itching to edit it! I guess, constantly revising my own writing has made me ultra-critical and nitpicky. Throughout to book, my own editor’s advice was ringing in my ears: lose another third; cut out all the bits you’re especially proud of; is that character fully earning her keep?; what’s that secondary story line contributing? make sure all your facts tally¬† … Cut, cut, cut. Edit, edit, edit. She would have had me reduce that 532 pages to 252! But in truth Susan Lewis has published 30 books and established a resounding reputation, She needs no endorsement from me!

The book served my purpose, however. Thanks to a break away reading someone else’s work, I can return to my own writing with renewed enthusiasm.

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Left Neglected

Isn’t it weird how things you read so often resonate with real life? They seem to jump off the pages. Some of it’s serendipity, some of it presumably just because we’re preoccupied at some level with a particular facet of life, making us super-sensitive to any mention of it anywhere it crops up.

That’s how it was with Lisa Genova‘s Left Neglected for me. (Clever title, by the way.) After a set back with my own ongoing health problems this past week, my upbeat facade slipped a bit; despondency crept round the edges of my guard. Sigh. Would I ever get back to full capacity and pick up the strands of my previous working life?

OK, distraction required urgently. Tidy desk … light a scented candle … reach for the next book on my tbr pile.

Left NeglectedAnd there it was: Left Neglected.

The protagonist Sarah, a young mum of three, brain damaged in a car accident, is struggling with a crisis of confidence. Will she ever get back into her high powered, multi-tasking, crowded, demanding life again? And boy, this woman has far, far bigger mountains to climb than I; much, much further to fall. Already my own task assumes less daunting dimensions.

But so much of what Sarah experiences resonates with me. There’s …

the everyday, no-big-deal but assured voice’ she and I reserve for visitors …

the resentment we feel towards those who would protect us from work-related tasks lest they stress us out: ‘Focus on you, don’t worry about work’ …

awareness of our own powerlessness: ‘The therapy might work and it might not. I can work as hard as I’ve always worked at everything I’ve ever done, and it might not be any more effective that just lying here and praying’.

Then there’s the lurking sense of day-to-day failure: ‘This is not the confident image of health and competency I was hoping to project’ …

not to mention the unspoken dread for the future: ‘What if I don’t recover 100 percent?’ …

in spite of the oft-repeated rallying cry: ‘I’m a fighter, I can do this.’

Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist by background which probably accounts for her choice of topics and the authenticity and insightful awareness of her writing. I loved her first book about dementia, Still Alice (now a major film). This time she has totally captured the real feelings of someone facing the ongoing issues of serious debilitating illness. The bonus is that her writing is also a delight to my soul. Listen to the way she introduces Sarah’s little girl Lucy who’s 5:

‘Lucy comes out of her bedroom dressed like a lunatic.

“How do you like my fashion, Mom?”

She’s wearing a pink and white polka-dot vest layered over an orange long-sleeve shirt, velvet leopard print leggings under a sheer pink ballerina tutu, Ugg boots, and six clips secured randomly in her hair, all different colors.

“You look fabulous, honey.”‘

Or the baby, Linus’ habit of crying relentlessly till a parent goes to him:

‘Plan aborted. Baby wins. Score: Harvard MBA-trained parents, both highly skilled in negotiation and leadership: 0. Nine-month-old child with no formal education or experience on the planet: too many times for my weary brain to count.’

If you’d told me Genova would take over 75 pages to even get to the accident I’d have gulped. Will there be enough hooks to keep me engrossed? No danger. She builds up a powerful picture of a beleaguered super-mom in her thirties juggling many competing demands. A nagging list is playing in Sarah’s head as she drives:

‘You need to call Harvard before noon, you need to start year-end performance reviews, you need to finalize the B-school training program for science associates, you need to call the landscaper; you need to email the London office, you need to return the overdue library books, you need to return the pants that don’t fit Charlie to the Gap, you need to pick up formula for Linus, you need to pick up the dry cleaning, you need to pick up the dinner; you need to make a dentist appointment for Lucy about her tooth, you need to make a dermatological appointment for you about that mole, you need to go to the bank, you need to pay the bills, don’t forget to call Harvard before noon, email the London office …’

By the time we get to page 75 we’re not surprised that she’s searching for her phone while she drives from A to B and momentarily takes her eye off the road. We might even secretly sympathise. How else will she stay on top?

And after all that happens to her, perhaps we aren’t surprised either to find that incapacity, space and time give her a different sense of priorities:

‘For the first time in almost a decade, I stop barreling a thousand miles an hour down that road. Everything stopped. And although much of the stillness of the past four months has been a painful and terrifying experience, it has given me a chance to lift my head up and have a look around … Maybe success can be something else, and maybe there’s another way to get there. Maybe there’s a different road for me with a more reasonable speed limit.’

Ahhh. Speed limits. I too have been evaluating mine. Must I also accept that ‘life can be fully lived with less’?

In her acknowledgements Lisa Genova thanks all the people actually coping with Left Neglect who shared their experiences with her, giving her ‘the real and human insight into the condition that simply can’t be found in textbooks’. And this human warmth is what makes the novel so much more than the anatomy of an illness.

So I salute you, Lisa Genova. And I thank you for putting my own problems into a healthier perspective.

Never Say GoodbyeThe next novel in my pile, Never Say Goodbye by Susan Lewis, takes me deep into the lives of women with incurable cancer … Ahhhhh. By now I’m deeply ashamed of ever having felt a twinge of self-pity.

I’ve since patrolled the Infirmary corridors in a torn and skimpy hospital gown (guaranteed to rob you of any sense of power or control you might be clinging to!) waiting for a medical verdict. My turn comes. I learn that a doctrine of doctors with yards of erudite letters after their names and aeons of experience with hearts of all descriptions, have put their mighty heads together to devise a plan to set me back on the road to recovery. It will take some months but I may not … may not … after all have to give up what I love doing. Thank you thank you thank you. The NHS at its amazing best. I may be dizzy and nauseated and fuzzy-headed and more tired than I’ve even been in my life, but I’m back on top of the world!

 

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