Hazel McHaffie

the Dinner

Week 2 of the Book Festival

I’ve now returned to my usual invisible self, my stint as official blogger for Genotype over, my press pass archived.

Two sessions to share with you this time. Friday morning was close to my own current preoccupations. How much responsibility should parents take for their children? How far would you be prepared to go to protect those you love? And when is it right to sacrifice the interests of an individual for the greater good?

Two books were under discussion: The Donor, by Australian Helen Fitzgerald, formerly a criminal justice social worker, working with rapists, murderers and psychopaths, (gives her a head start, huh?) and The Dinner, by Dutch TV and radio producer, actor and writer, Herman Koch. Both dark books with largely unsympathetic, unlikeable characters. Hmm. Do I like unlikeable characters?

Fitzgerald’s novel, The Donor, is billed as a ‘tense thriller’ – genres are rather elusive labels at times and I’d say this was a loose categorisation. It’s about single father, Will Marion, a passive, unproductive man whom one of his girls describes as ‘a rubbish dad‘. His teenage twin daughters are polar opposites, but both have inherited a kidney condition, which means they both need a transplant. Will has two perfectly functioning kidneys. What should he do? Naturally, given my need to read any novel on transplantation, I’ve got this one, but it wasn’t the sentimental tearjerker I was expecting. It’s set in a world of drugs and violence, crime and punishment, dysfunctional families and misplaced loyalties. ‘Gritty’ is my summary.

The Dinner deals with the sombre undercurrents that lie beneath middle-class respectability. Two very different brothers – one a teacher, the other a high-ranking cabinet minister a whisper away from becoming prime minister of the Netherlands – and their wives, are in a smart restaurant, exchanging polite but banal conversation. But behind the empty words lurks an horrific secret: their fifteen-year-old sons were together accountable for an act of terrible brutality. They weren’t identified at the scene of the crime so will the parents report them to the police, or will they protect their own reputation and careers? The actions of any one of them could affect them all.

Both authors talked about the triggers to their stories, their use of humour, how they balanced the story line with the issues – all issues relevant to me. I could usefully compare and contrast their decisions with my own. They too challenge the reader to ask, What would I do in such circumstances?

The Monday session was much further outside my comfort zone: Letting the Genome out of the Bottle. Genomics – essentially the study of all the genes of a cell or tissue at the DNA level – is a relatively new field of enquiry which has raised huge questions for society, and the knowledge it provides has widespread consequences for individuals, for families and for society.

My Beautiful GenomeThe author, Lone Frank is an internationally acclaimed Danish science writer with a PhD in neurobiology. Mercifully I’d read her book, My Beautiful Genome: Exposing our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time, so I wasn’t completely lost during her talk, even though the sound effect of rain thundering down on the roof of the tent was rather distracting, and I was still suffering from motion sickness after almost 1000 miles on the road over the weekend.

Consumer genetics has been ‘portrayed as a panacea for the plague of diseases, a cornucopia of health and prevention – with the Holy Grail being the advent of personalized medicine, tailor-made for your individual genes.’ Frank was clear: illness is indeed an important aspect of genetics, but it’s only part of the picture. Clarity is something she aims for. And accessibility. She manages to make a complex subject engaging by taking us on her personal journey of genetic discovery. She became a research subject – no easy task given the family history of depression, mental illness, alcohol problems, breast cancer – unravelling the Lone Frank genome with all its strengths and vulnerabilities. She shares the accumulating secrets with her readers. Then, having reeled us in, she broadens the issues through discussions with an impressive array of scientists from around the world. A clever tactic.

The end result is a book that’s at once engaging, informative and intriguing. How about this for a withering aside to a pompous boss: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components‘? Or this to prick an over-inflated ego: ‘human beings share ninety-eight percent of their genome with a screeching chimpanzee, sixty percent with a skittering mouse, and even twenty percent with a lowly roundworm a millimetre long‘? Brilliant!

And her honesty means she doesn’t shirk the difficult questions about the consequences of biological fortune-telling. There were times when I felt decidedly genetically challenged, but I scribbled furiously, and came away with a rather reassuring picture. Consumer genetics isn’t about checking your genes for a diagnosis of specific diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses, or Alzheimer’s. Rather it’s a risk assessment; a collection of indicators that compare your chances of getting a disease against the same risk in the general population.  And if you’re fearful of knowing about your genetic underpinnings, remember ‘None of us are free of mutations and genetic weaknesses – the flawless genome does not exist.’ Knowing what these weaknesses are could potentially empower us to protect ourselves from developing those illnesses to which we are susceptible. But analysis of our genes will only take us so far. Exactly what tactics to adopt requires understanding of what turns the genes on and off – the new science of epigenetics to which attention is now turning. So we aren’t there yet. And secretly at times I was wondering if we were any further forward than the days when we simply looked to our parents and grandparents to see what we had potentially inherited.

There are though, many, many other issues to consider in this more scientific approach: privacy, questions of intellectual property, the consequences to relatives, the implications for prospective parents wanting to minimize genetic disadvantage in their children, commercial pressures, the implications for employers using these tests as part of a selection process, DIY genetic testing, surreptitious testing of celebrities, paternity testing, genetic dating … I was left reeling. There were clearly some experts in the audience – they challenged Frank to tighten up her language and thinking. No dumbing down for the uninitiated here!

But the last word has to go to Lone Frank. It was she who put herself in the firing line, exposing her own vulnerabilities for all to see, she who wrote this fascinating book, after all. Her conclusion is that her genome is ‘not a straitjacket but a soft sweater to fill and shape, to snuggle up and stretch out in … it is information that can grant me greater freedom to shape my life and my essence.‘ How comforting is that?

So, the Book Festival is over for another year. And for me it’s been one of the most enjoyable yet. Hats off to all those people who make it possible.

 

 

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