Hazel McHaffie

Something stirring …

We’re rather used to recognising acting dynasties, identifying young upcoming stars as son/daughter of legendary names, but it’s much less common in the world of literature. So I was rather taken aback by the blurb about the author Christopher Rice which appears on the very first page of The Snow Garden:

Christopher Rice is the son of Anne Rice, bestselling novelist, and Stan Rice, the poet.

Hmmm. I’d rather stand or fall on my own merits when it comes to writing novels, I think.

Anyway, that aside, this book came under my radar because it includes an ethical dilemma – someone deliberately infecting a number of others knowing he is HIV positive – and I do try to keep tabs on the potential competition!!

Two women dying in suspicious circumstances … a group of undergrads with rampant hormones up to no goo … a professor somehow linked to all of them … several people not who they claim to be – that’s the essence of the storyline. And it took me back to the days when HIV/AIDS was a ‘new’ and much feared incurable disease. I carried out research on the topic and met a large number of young homosexual men and drug users who were dying from it, so I could relate to this book.

But my novels are definitely not in competition with this one. Christopher Rice is himself gay and writes from that perspective. And it’s a far more literary style of work which unravels slowly and is steeped in complex relationships, dubious morality, haunted pasts, convoluted cult religious ideas, academic and personal jealousies. Way beyond my pay-grade! And definitely not my cup of tea.

But, for some obscure reason, what came out of this was a poke into the embers of my own writing fire, hitherto suppressed during the pandemic.

As I tramped along on my morning constitutionals this week, enjoying the blossom and the birdsong, the imagination raced away with ideas which throughout the past year have been vague possibilities for a plot and characters. Feels invigorating. Spring buds emerging in the brain as well as the trees …? Time will tell.


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A Thousand Splendid Suns

Well, having loved The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, … I just had to read another of his novels,  A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has also languished on my shelves for far too long.

It’s set against the same backdrop: Afghanistan at the time of the overthrow of the king, through the civil war, the rule of the Mujahideen, and the coming of the Taliban. A wounded country, sinking into a state of destruction, starvation, oppression, brutality and terrible fear.

Jalil Khan is one of the wealthiest men in Herat before the wars begin. He has three wives and nine legitimate children, properties, a thriving business, but he blotted his reputation when an affair with his housekeeper became public. His illegitimate daughter, Mariam, adores him, and for fourteen years he visits her, in her maternal home – a mud hut, in a clearing, with no amenities – and makes a big fuss of her. Her genuine affection for him makes his eventual betrayal all the harder to bear. He has chosen his reputation over her welfare.

She’s still only 15, and now motherless, when she’s married off to a man thirty years her senior. Rasheed is an embittered and malodorous shoe-maker, who takes her away from everyone and everything she knows. She is uprooted, displaced, like an intruder in someone else’s life. Nevertheless, initially, when he hides her from the gaze of other men, she feels prized by him, treasured and significant, but that all changes when she loses pregnancy after pregnancy, and he becomes brutish, harsh and violent.

Eighteen years into their fruitless marriage, when he rescues a young girl, Laila, from the rubble following a rocket attack which kills her parents and destroys her home, a new dynamic is established. Rasheed by now is in his sixties, Mariam 33, the girl 14. He grooms Laila to become an additional wife. Laila is already stricken with grief, not only losing home and family, but also hearing that her young lover, Tariq, has been killed. What’s more, she’s just discovered she’s pregnant with his baby after one clumsy coupling … all hope of running away together has gone. She knows there’s no future for her either in this punitive land, or in the refugee camps if she were to flee the country, unless she is under the protection of a man. Marriage offers her her only chance.

Rasheed openly favours Laila and makes Mariam’s life a misery with his cruel taunts and obvious preferences. But that all changes when the baby turns out to be a girl, Aziza, and Rasheed vents his displeasure on Laila. Mariam’s resentment turns to pity for the poor girl, and gradually allegiances change as the two women unite in the face of Rasheed’s harsh treatment of them both. They conspire to escape together, but their plans are thwarted when a stranger betrays them. Rasheed exacts a terrible revenge.

Two and a half years after the failed escape, the Taliban arrive. Their oppressive rule is crushing for women like Laila, reared to expect education and independence. Now the two wives must always wear burqahs, never go out unaccompanied by a man, suffer domestic abuse without hope of rescue, work like slaves. Rasheed’s violence escalates, and the only person he treats well is his son, Zalmai. It suits him to have the Taliban’s approval to punish his wives with beatings and deprivation.

After 27 years of marriage to this man, Mariam finally turns, when she sees him strangling Laila with every intention of killing her. Her old lover Tariq has returned and Laila has dared to speak to him without a chaperone – an unforgivable offence worthy of death in Rasheed’s eyes. Mariam is prepared to forfeit her own life to save Laila. And she does.

For four decades, now, the Afghan refugee crisis has been one of the severest around the world. In this tale of unconscionable violence, oppression and survival against the odds, Afghanistan and its people and its sorrows come vividly to life. Real love and honourable sacrifice shine the brighter for the contrast with evil. Hosseini has not only accomplished this, but he himself works as a US goodwill envoy for UNHCR, the humanitarian agency, helping to protect basic human rights of refugees, provide emergency relief, and help them restart their lives in safe environments. Lots to commend him.

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People of the Book

I love discovering a new-to-me author who inspires me. This time it’s Geraldine Brooks. With nearly 400 pages of quite densely printed text, People of the Book needed time and mental space, so I waited for some downtime between assorted deadlines to open it. Once I did, I was hooked!

It’s a work of fiction but inspired by the true story of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This, one of the earliest illustrated medieval Hebrew books, first came to the attention of scholars in Sarajevo in 1894, when it was offered for sale by an indigent Jewish family. All that could be ascertained was that it had been made in Spain, possibly in the mid-fourteenth century. By 1609 the haggadah had found its way to Venice where the signature of a Catholic priest saved it from the  book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition. Not a lot to go on, you might think! But the clever juxtaposition of known facts and imagined back-stories makes the whole history come alive and feel authentic. Add to that the authority of the author – a foreign correspondent who covered the Bosnian war from Sarajevo for The Wall Street Journal; who witnessed the destruction of museums and libraries holding priceless manuscripts – and you have a winning combination.

At the time of the Bosnian conflict, the fate of the precious Sarajevo Haggadah, the jewel in the collection, was unknown, but the subject of much journalistic speculation. However, reporter Geraldine Brooks was granted permission to actually see the real thing being restored under heavy guard in 2001 at the European Union Bank. In tracing a fictional journey across countries, and centuries, through wars and persecutions, against different cultures and religions, it’s small wonder she became overwhelmed by the task she’d taken on, and needed to take a couple of years out. It would represent a life’s work for most people, I suspect! My precis here will be inadequate, but hopefully it will tempt you to read it for yourself, and be amazed in your turn.

Dr Hanna Heath is an extremely meticulous conservator of medieval manuscripts who lives in Sydney, Australia. She comes with a stream of qualifications: double honours in chemistry and ancient Near Eastern languages, masters in chemistry, PhD in fine art conservation … oh, and she’s passionate about her job.

When she’s invited to Bosnia to work with a very rare and beautiful object, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a lavishly and exquisitely illuminated Hebrew manuscript, she goes to the length of creating vellum herself by scouring the fat off a meter of calf intestine with a pumice stone, and making gold leaf from scratch, in order to understand how books were created 600 years ago, such is her need to be both accurate and true.

The precious manuscript needs some stabilisation work before it’s exhibited. No conservator has touched it for a hundred years, but it has been mishandled by non experts for years, and now the trick is to work so well that there’s no sign anyone has worked on it at all. But as well as conserving the parchment physically, it’s Hanna’s job to learn its history  Every shred of dust, every sliver, every fragment, every stain, offers a clue, tells a story. The veining on a piece of insect wing shows it comes from a particular species of butterfly only found high up in the Alps; a stain of kosher wine proves to be contaminated with someone’s blood; crystals indicate a splash by seawater; a hair from the throat area of a Persian long-haired cat tracks to a special kind of paintbrush … They throw up endless questions:
… why would an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?

With so much information, structure is vitally important. Dr Hanna Heath is at the centre – working on the manuscript in the 21st century, but uncovering clues to the past as she goes. Interspersed between each new discovery is the story of how these things came about; the lives entwined with the ancient parchment, unravelling backwards in time.

There’s Lola, a young Jewish laundress, who escapes from the round up of Jews in Sarajevo and flees to the mountains where she joins an order of resistance fighters until she’s abandoned, cold, hungry and despairing, and returns to the city. There she’s rescued by a wealthy and learned Muslim, Serif Kamal and his wife, Stela. Serif is the librarian at the museum who’s entrusted to take care of the haggadah to preserve it from the destruction and looting overtaking their city. But once he has this priceless artefact in his possession, none of them are safe. So Serif takes it high into the mountains to a devout Muslim who squirrels it away in the library of his mosque, between volumes of Islamic law – the last place anyone would go looking for an ancient Jewish manuscript!

Before this, a dying bookbinder, Florien Mittl, ravaged by end-stage syphilis, already suffering from paranoid delusions, is commissioned to rebind the haggadah in ‘Vienna, although these days he can hardly recall the sequence of steps in the process. However, he’s desperate for money for a cure for his disease, so he’s prepared to desecrate the priceless book in order to gain generous remuneration: he removes the exquisitely wrought silver clasps in exchange for experimental treatment.

Further back again, in Venice, a trembling alcoholic priest, Father Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, is living a double life in several directions. He’s a lover of books and language, and yet, as censor for the Inquisition, destined to consign beautiful works, ‘blasphemous’ texts, to the flames. His old acquaintance, the Jewish rabbi, Judah Aryeh, is in possession of the Sarajevo haggadah, and because of his addictions, the fate of this beautiful object comes to rest on a gamble. It’s Vistorini’s wine and blood that stains the ancient parchment.

Back we go to the actual formation of the book. A sofer, David Ben Shoushan, sees the potential of a set of glorious gold leaf paintings, and has the stamina to painstakingly inscribe the Hebrew text to go with them – we watch his hand trembling as he moves from ink bottle to parchment, crafting those precise letters, willing him not to blot the parchment. The pages and paintings are placed in the greasy hands of a double-dealing bookbinder, Micha, along with Shoushan’s wife’s silver which will be crafted into beautiful clasps to make the finished product a bridal gift fit for a king.  But before David Ben Shoushan can even see the end result, the Spanish Inquisition close their murderous claws around his family, and the precious haggadah is smuggled out and into new dangers. It’s when a Gentile baby is being ritually baptised in the sea to welcome him into the Jewish faith, that a few drops of saltwater splash on the manuscript leaving a residue of crystals that will last for hundreds of years.

The life of a black Jewess, Zahra bint Ibrahim al-Tarek, is abruptly changed each time she’s moved on … from her home in Infriqiya where she learned to illustrate her father’s medical texts … into captivity … from thence to living in an emir’s palace as a fine painter of his wife’s likeness … and then to work for a Jewish doctor who had admired her medical illustrations for years. One major loss after another deepens her awareness of herself and the dark side of life. Having been entranced by an exquisite Christian Book of Hours filled with luminous illustrations for each prayer which the emira Isabella used for her devotions, Zahra sets about creating a story of the world as the Jews understand it to have come to be, for the doctor’s deaf-mute son, Benjamin. With no higher motive than to make the boy want to look at each picture and understand what it conveys, she concentrates on making the pictures as vibrant and appealing as she can. Indeed, so determined is she to project the right sense that sometimes she’s profoundly disturbed by the representations herself. The fine paint brushes she uses are made of cat fur and it’s one such hair marked with saffron dye that Dr Heath finds hundreds of years later.

The beautiful and intricate story of the creation and preservation and survival of this amazing book, is well matched by the meticulous research of the author. Whether it’s history across the ages, ethnic cleansing, ancient language and literature, the geography of cities around the world, different religions and their customs, diseases and their treatments, gambling in the seventeenth century, music, art, architecture, food, laboratory techniques or the structure of hair, you feel to be in safe hands with Geraldine Brooks.

Rather like the Sarajevo haggadah, a book to savour and treasure indeed.

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The Kite Runner

The perfect confection of fine writing, moving themes and dramatic storytelling

Shattering … devastating and inspiring

Well, the reviews certainly sang the praises of The Kite Runner by Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini, when it came out in 2011. I bought the book years ago, but regrettably it’s only just come to the top of my tbr pile; I missed a real treat. On the other hand, given that I now know people from these countries, it probably has much more personal resonance than it would have done back then.

The official blurb sums up a complex tale succinctly.
Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Hassan and Amir are two Afghan motherless boys, whose fathers grew up together (Hassan’s father being adopted by Amir’s grandfather when he was suddenly and violently orphaned). The boys were fed by the same nursing breast, took their first halting steps on the same lawn, said their first words under the same roof. They commit many boyish pranks together, Hassan always ready to fall in with Amir’s wishes, ready too to take the blame when they’re found out. United as playmates they might be, but they’re forever separated by caste and religion. Hassan is a servant boy, a Shia Muslim, a Hazara, with mongoloid features and a hare lip, who lives in a mud shack. Far more naturally athletic than his friend, he’s an ace kite runner. Amir, on the other hand, is a wealthy Sunni Muslim, a Pashtun (oppressors of the Hazaras), a comely lad, living in a mansion, only son of one of the richest merchants in Kabul. But Amir is much less principled than his friend; Hassan is so ‘pure’ and truthful and unfailingly respectful that Amir always feels like a phony in his presence.

Amir attends school, but Hussan is illiterate, a mere servant, kept busy by his duties. However, the two boys share a love of stories, and Amir often reads to his playmate. Indeed, it’s Hussan’s praise that spurs Amir on when he begins to dabble in storytelling himself. In fifth grade, Amir is taught about Islam by a mullah – the evils of worldly pleasures, the importance of memorising the Koran, the intricacies of performing the set prayers. But he’s already aware of the double standards existing in his country, and his father teaches him that, if there is a God out there, he has more important things to do than worry about what men are eating and drinking. As a result, Amir hovers between the two stances about God.

Amir’s father is an aloof man who doesn’t give the boy much attention, resenting the fact that his beloved wife died giving him birth. A natural winner at everything he sets his mind to, he finds his son a constant source of disappointment. Amir hasn’t inherited a shred of his father’s athletic abilities; he’s much more interested in literature than sport. The only common ground is kite flying – a major tradition in Afghanistan.

Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper-thin slice of intersection between those spheres.

But life changes forever when civil war erupts in Afghanistan. It’s July 1973. Suddenly the monarchy is a thing of the past, the 40-year reign of the king has ended with a bloodless coup. For a short time a sense of rejuvenation pervades the land; people even talk of women’s rights and modern technology. And the fortunes of the two Afghan boys seem to be in the ascendancy too. Amir’s father pays for Hussan to have an operation to repair his harelip as a birthday gift. Then when Amir is 12, he wins the annual kite tournament and thereby finally wins his father’s pride.

But that proud day, after successfully bagging the last kite left flying, Hassan is cornered by three thugs and brutally raped. Amir saw it happening but did nothing at all to stop it; an act of cowardice that will haunt him for the rest of his days.

Wracked by the terrible memories and crushing guilt, Amir compounds the injustice by drumming Hassan out of his life. But even then, falsely accused, deserted by his childhood friend, Hassan refuses to betray Amir; he’s the very embodiment of loyalty, kindness and martyrdom. Such forgiveness, such selflessness, serving to deepen Amir’s self-loathing still further.

Six years later life again changes irrevocably in Afghanistan, and the pampered lives of Amir and his father come to an abrupt end.

… the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan … villages were burned and schools destroyed … mines were planted like seeds of death and children buried in rock-piled graves … Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of hare lipped ghosts.

They eventually flee from the brutality and lawlessness via unscrupulous people traffickers, a rat-infested basement, and smuggled in trucks, to a new life in America.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade in this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories and no sins.

A place for Amir to bury his memories certainly, but a place for his father to mourn his. He cannot reconcile himself to the ways of a people so different from those of his beloved homeland.

When Amir declares his intention to study creative writing his father’s reaction is predictably scornful:
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Wah wah! So, if I understand, you’ll study several years to get a degree, then you’ll get a chatti job like mine, one you could just as easily land today, on the small chance that your degree might someday help you get … discovered.’

When he falls in love with Soraya, an Afghan woman with a past, Amir’s burden of guilt is exacerbated again.  His new wife is more honourable than he – she has the courage to admit her faults – while his secret remains unspoken between them. What’s more, though honour and pride are the watchwords of the Pashtun people, he’s acutely aware that different standards apply to women than to men.

Back in Afghanistan, the warring factions have destroyed properties, opportunities and hopes. By the time Amir next hears news of Hussan, the Taliban have taken over. They ban kite flying; they massacre the Hazaras. Sharia law prevails.
Kindness has gone from the land and you cannot escape the killings … fear is everywhere … the savages who rule our watan don’t care about human decency.
Amir himself witnesses a barbaric stoning to death of a man and woman for adultery during a brief visit to his homeland.

When he hears from his father’s old friend of the murder of Hassan and his wife by the Taliban, Amir’s first thought is for their little boy, Sohrab. But what he learns about Hassan himself, shocks him to the core: their whole lives have been one massive cycle of lies, betrayals and secrets. But worse, this new knowledge means that his childhood betrayal of Hassan and his ongoing guilt are now magnified colossally. So, should he accept the opportunity that presents to end the toxic cycle; this last chance at redemption? The answer comes through a veil of tears.

A moving and profoundly challenging story.

PS. I must just share this gem …
An infertility specialist: ‘A man’s plumbing is like his mind: simple, very few surprises. You ladies, on the other hand … well, God put a lot of thought into making you.’

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Lock Me In

Well, Lock Me In, rather grabs you by the throat, doesn’t it, when we’re on the cusp of starting to emerge from lockdown yet again! Lock me IN?  No! No! No! Please NO!

Turn to the back cover of the said book and you see more phrases reminiscent of the mental consequences of being stuck in our homes: ‘locked in her bedroom’,  ‘sleep disorder’, ‘violent’, ‘unpredictable behaviours’, ‘anger ‘. Makes you shudder.

But in fact, this story is nothing to do with Covid-19. Indeed, it was published in 2019, before we’d even heard of the coronavirus. It’s another thriller with a medical condition at its core. Now you’re talking …

Oh, and I love the dedication: To Tom, who never once suggested I give up this nonsense and get a real job.

The author is Kate Simants, formerly an investigative broadcast journalist for both Channel 4 and the BBC, who gained first-hand knowledge of the realities of police procedure and culture in the course of her work. She also specialised in covert filming and undercover work, and contributed to various exposés, from fraudulent witchdoctors to abuse in children’s homes, so she comes to thriller-writing with exceptional credentials.

The medical condition in question is not one I knew much about. Nineteen-year-old Ellie Power has been given the label of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her rare sleep disorder means that every night she must be locked into her bedroom in her mother’s flat for fear of what she might do if she’s free. Even so, in the mornings after one of her ‘fugues’, she finds disturbing evidence that she’s been up and about – multiple injuries on her own or her mother’s body, soil up her arms and on her clothes, damage done to the locks on the doors. But she has absolutely no recollection of what has happened to her. Knives, matches, bleach, everything potentially harmful, have to be hidden safe beyond her reach.

The Powers’ whole lives are lived on a tentative basis. Ellie’s mum, Christine, has abandoned a career of relative fame as an internationally renowned war reporter, never putting down roots lest they be recognised. They live in rented accommodation, pay in cash so they can leave at a moment’s notice. Boyfriends have to be dismissed if they start asking too many questions. Everything revolves around covering Ellie’s tracks, keeping her safe.

Safe from Siggy; her alter ego, her nemesis.

Now Matt, Ellie’s boyfriend, is missing. And Ellie bears the marks of fingers compressing her neck. Dare we even ask … what has happened?

The plotting of this thriller is intriguing. At the centre is this young couple, Ellie and Matt. On the face of it, Ellie has a checkered past, living with the devastation wrought by Siggy; the death of her best friend Jodie; her brushes with the law and mental health services; her responsibility for the damage caused to the reputation of DS Ben Kwon Mae. By contrast, Matt seems colourless: 26, a hospital photography lab technician, reliable, with no history of going missing or dabbling in unsavoury habits. But the layers of the story unravel to reveal a tangled web of abuse, deceit, suspect identities, hidden pasts, betrayal. Family, healthcare personnel, police, employers … so many lives intricately interwoven; the fall of one domino creating a cascade of repercussions for so many others.

The tension builds cleverly as each lie is exposed, each cover blown. One neat tactic Simants adopts is to include transcripts of interviews with a psychologist trying to get a young Ellie to deal with her terrible nightmares, thereby revealing a truth even she doesn’t know exists.

At what point does fantasy become memory? Where does responsibility begin and end? Could Ellie/Siggy really be held accountable for the death of two people she loved? And exactly who is she?

The turning point comes unexpectedly with a new pathos, insights into the horrors of war, brutality, and crushing grief. The whole book is well-written, and I love throw away expressions like a wave on the river turning a narrowboat into an accidental submarine, or a policeman directing an angle-grinder stare at a suspect. But the language – the very feel of the novel – in the later section, changes to convey something much more reflective and evocative.
War does not  leave when the soldiers leave. The people, the children, are the echo chamber. All the death here has left the air slack. It climbs out of the earth and the buildings to greet you. More than just quiet; it is something stretched and released, like a womb just vacated.

The denouement when it finally emerges bears no resemblance to the picture I’d been building in my mind. It’s altogether more poignant, more unbearably sad.  I needed to take time to revisit the character of Ellie, and re-live her experiences through the prism of fuller knowledge.

Fascinating as much for its structure as its story.


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It’s now sixteen years since my novel about surrogate pregnancy, Double Trouble, was published. Sixteen years!! But the issues are still swirling around.

Surrogacy is banned in most countries in Europe, but it’s perfectly legal and permissible in the UK, provided the surrogate gives the service free of charge. She may ask for expenses, but not money for carrying the child. Seems there are an astonishing number of Apps and agencies linking surrogates with intended parents, underlining the frequency with which these arrangements are made. Who knew?

So hats off to the BBC who’ve produced a three episode series, The Surrogates, following five surrogacy arrangements in this country. Infertile, homosexual and single people, desperate to be parents, take this route to fulfil their dearest dreams, some using their own genetic material, some employing donor gametes. Young fertile mothers put themselves forward to carry babies for them, and they are the ones in the driving seat when it comes to choosing the intending parents with whom to form a working team. Social events, as well as online links, enable both parties to introduce themselves to each other, and establish rapport and relationships.

We were given the merest glimpse into the complex array of questions about the process and potential issues, however. Things like,
How many times are you prepared to try with this person?
What would you do if the child has disabilities?
Do you, the surrogate, want to have a continuing relationship with the child?
How do you feel about giving up the baby to a relative stranger?
What would happen if you, the surrogate, change your mind about handing the baby over?
How does your (the surrogate’s) partner/spouse feel about everything?
How intimately is the intended father to be involved in the actual processes of fertilisation, pregnancy and birth?
And so much more.

Some dilemmas were evident, though not spelled out. Seeing a young man climb into a water-bath with a completely naked woman not his partner while she delivers a baby, in itself raises all sorts of questions. Watching the play of emotions on the face of a husband as his wife embraces another man at intimate moments of reproduction, brings so many doubts to the fore. Hearing of a partner walking away because he can’t cope with the fallout of what he once saw as an heroic gesture, is traumatic. Being ‘rejected’ for the key role can resurrect deep-seated problems with self esteem. Exactly what does this level of sharing of an intensely intimate and private series of acts, do to relationships and bonds and families?

It’s only retrospectively one can say if such a transaction has been a wise decision. But it’s something every person contemplating being involved in a surrogate pregnancy must delve into deeply and honestly, and this series is a very useful launching pad. Happily, of course, not all such processes must take place under the glare of spotlights and cameras. These were very courageous souls.


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Nadia’s Song

The keening of the women was deafening, painful, the high-pitched mourning ululation of the Middle East rising from a half-million throats. The corniche was a river of black, hiding the sea beyond.

What an evocative opening paragraph! The book? Nadia’s Song by Soheir Khashoggi. This tale of forbidden love and divided loyalties is set against the colourful history of Egypt’s conflicts and cultures. The events of the 1940s in the Middle East especially, add a depth of historical accuracy and credibility to the story.

The mourning ululation from a half-million throats is for renowned Egyptian singer, Karima Ismail, known as ‘The Nightingale’, dead at fifty-three. The country is in mourning, and Karima’s daughter Gabriella is utterly devastated by this sudden unheralded bereavement of a second mother. She can find no closure, no comfort. Something is gnawing away at her: how could it be that her mother had taken drugs, died of an overdose, when she never touched the stuff? As a reporter, as a daughter, she needs answers.

Unravel back to the 1940s when Karima is a young girl, a servant, learning about the ways of the world. A major war is raging in Europe, stretching it’s invading fingers into the homes of rich and poor alike even in at-that-time-neutral Egypt. There are spies and collaborators everywhere, disguised and unremarkable. Watching, listening, liaising, accusing.

But for Karima and her childhood friend, Charles, son of her master, major changes are at work at a much more intimate and personal level. So much divides them in this hierarchical culture. Theirs is a forbidden love – spanning class and race; a love that could not be. Tragedy separates them, but not before a child is conceived. Following the death of Charles, she pours all her raw emotion into her singing.

The code of honour governing behaviour in their culture is strict and rigid. Karima has disgraced her family. Her brother Omar is beyond outraged. He exacts terrible extended revenge. But, desperate to salvage something from the wreckage, he nevertheless finds her a good husband, Munir, more than twice her age, who in turn sees her potential and introduces her to influential people who can nourish her beautiful and exceptional voice. She becomes ‘The Nightingale’.  But the greater her success, the harder Omar presses her for money.

Munir however falls more and more in love with his beautiful young wife and gladly accepts the baby Nadia as his own. But happiness is short lived. Nadia is just two years old when a night of rioting and violence tears her away from her parents. In the same fire, Munir suffers a serious heart attack, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Karima devotes herself to caring for him, but when demands increase for her to return to singing, he urges her to do so. She eventually relents, promising Munir she will, provided he gets better. The promise extracted he can die happy, knowing she will not waste her God-given talent.

Karima has now lost both daughter and husband, and the crushing sorrow adds even more pathos to her singing. Her fame escalates and she is in great demand professionally.

In reality, and unknown to her mother, the child Nadia has escaped from the burning building, and is found and rescued by a childless couple, Dr Tarik Misry and his wife Celine, who take her into their lives and hearts. They rename her Gabriella, and devote themselves to her happiness. Discovering she is not their biological child has a profound effect on Gabriella, and sets her off on a mission to discover her true parentage, and the reality of what really happened to her famous mother.

The truth is sordid and despicable. Gabriella’s uncle, Omar, from an early age mired in a dark world of drugs and debt and gambling and whoring, is jealous of his sister Karima’s success. He convinces himself that it was he who saved her by finding her a respectable husband; she owes him, big time. He leans on her heavily for money … time after time. For years, she does indeed bail him out, living modestly herself while funding his dissolute and reckless life, but there comes a day, after Gabriella has been reunited with her, when she finally holds firm against his entreaties. Her beloved daughter who was lost is now found, and she must concentrate her resources on being a good mother.

Incensed by her refusal, Omar exacts a fearful revenge: he drops hints about her being a spy, and fabricates a story of her undercover work that leads to her untimely and brutal death, disguised as suicide. Under Egyptian law, two thirds of her great wealth goes to her brother; Omar accepts it with little regret. Years pass.

But now Gabriella is a highly regarded reporter, probing for the truth, aided and abetted by her Irish boyfriend and Karima’s devoted friend and admirer, Farid Hamza, a high-ranking army Colonel. Between them they tighten the net.

However, Omar is not about to roll over and confess. He hatches a plot to abduct Gabriella, gain a king’s ransom in money, and then kill her anyway. Victory went to those who dared, he told himself. And he had always dared. The strong thrill of the plot drives him onwards.

There are just two and a half pages left to reveal the end result! You didn’t think I was going to spoil the finale, did you?!

It was fascinating to learn more of Middle Eastern history through the eyes of those living in that volatile part of the world. Sobering too, to be reminded of the rigid rules and double standards of the day and place.

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Cultural appropriation

Indulge me this week … a bit of a rant coming up!

I confess to being mightily perplexed by the ongoing movement, OwnVoices, which is denying authors the right to publish books about cultures or people outside their own, or criticising them for apparently stereotyping characters from minority communities. But it’s gaining such traction that massive runs of books that are seen to infringe the rules are being pulped; writers are pulling their own titles faced with being called out publicly, and maligned online. Even where the author has had personal experience of the topic they’re writing about, or is a recognised authority on the subject, they can still be forced to withdraw their work if someone objects to the depiction or activity of the marginalised character; if they feel their culture or identity is being appropriated. I also know of some budding, as well as established, authors who’re veering away from traditional publishing because they have things to say, but fear no publisher will dare put their heads about the parapet on their behalf.

Why am I perplexed? Well, I thought creative writing was about imagining if … putting oneself sympathetically into the shoes of another … exploring the huge diversity of life … adopting characteristics in the protagonists which spark reactions, make a point.
If one of my characters happens to be a black gay cleric who campaigns against the death penalty, say, that doesn’t mean I think all black gay clerics are opposed to it. Does it?
If I write about a transgender man who’s fighting to have frozen embryos (which include his genetic material) unfrozen and incubated to full term in a surrogate womb, it doesn’t imply I think all transgender men want their own biological children. Does it?
Must all crime fiction be written by fully paid up criminals?
Must all YA literature be from the pen of an adolescent in the exact same community/family/circumstances?
Must I have the precise same disability myself to include a character with an impairment of some kind in my novel?

That’s not to say, anything goes. Of course not. Seems to me that there are certain key elements which should characterise the depiction of life outside one’s own specific lived experience:
Humility – being alive to the limitations of one’s own experience and understanding, and receptive to the guidance of those who may know more.
Respect – having a healthy regard for the subject matter under review, portraying it sensitively and fairly.
Research – thoroughly exploring the lived reality of those about whom one wishes to write; immersing oneself in the world they inhabit, how they think, what matters to them.
Modest claims – ensuring there’s no suggestion of extrapolating beyond the confines of the story being written.

This topic isn’t new. I loved the generous spirit behind this discussion of cultural appropriation written in 2018. And a number of well-known writers made their own views known in this article, way back in 2016. But the prohibitions do seem to have gained momentum over the years. The fall out feels more significant.

Am I being naive? Maybe. But I’ve encountered my own share of incomprehensible overreaction to characters in my books. I’ve been made to feel I’m unsympathetic and unfeeling even after spending absurd amounts of time with representatives of the community in question. Promises of endorsement within minority groups came to nothing. So I really can understand why some people are unwilling to face the wrath of the marginalised or the militant activists.

Big sigh. There are so many important causes which need the big campaigns behind them – witness the massive response following the hideous abduction and murder of Sarah Everard this past week. Is putting tighter and tighter restrictions around creative writers who want to share with us a bigger world than our own, help us to understand how other people tick, widen empathy, really the way to go?


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Hold your Breath

Having written a thriller myself, I’m always now intrigued by their structure and component parts. One attribute is a capacity to make you suspend your breathing, just willing the protagonist to escape whatever horror lies in store. So Hold your Breath seems such an appropriate title for a book in this genre.

This one is by Barnaby Walter who dives into the disturbing world of mental illness – a world where things spin out of control, and people are scarily unpredictable. One key ‘character’ in this tale is the setting: a spooky forest, backdrop to shady night-time happenings.

Dark elements of child neglect and exorcism and witchcraft and disordered minds pile on the shivers. With the main action removed from the safety and scrutiny of suburban civilisation, events feel even more sinister, and the truth more elusive.

We know from early on that something dreadful happens, but so much is unknown and unknowable or half-understood because it’s synthesised through the young impressionable mind of the protagonist, Kitty Carlson. Adults are concealing the truth from her; she herself witnesses incomprehensible behaviours; we cannot be sure where fantasy ends and grown-up reality begins. As her mother’s mental health regresses we feel the approach of something dreadful, we hold our breath, fearful as to what form it will take.

Kitty is only 10 when the tragedy happens, but she’s already traumatised beyond her years. She knows that her family has secrets; they’ve always been different. It’s why her father took them to live in the woods during the half term holiday. It’s why unmentionable things are done in the haunted rental house, and why she’s sent to wander alone amongst the trees when the Catholic Father arrives.

As a young child she just buries her experiences.
She knows  …
that her mother ‘gets upset’ and ‘makes scenes’, that her paintings have become disturbing, that she says and does violent things, that she needs to be handled with care, that she needs psychiatric help.
She knows …
that her father has become more like a dictatorial school teacher than a loving parent, that he is liable to ‘flamin’ rages’, that he is involved with another woman.
She knows …
that she herself is mesmerised by small living creatures, that she resents having her innocent enquiries deflected, that she has learned early on to be self-sufficient, that she is a loner.

It’s only when she grows up that she starts to ask the most difficult questions, and delve into painful memories. The past has been buried for a reason. Eventually she’s driven to write a book, crafting something definite, something physical, out of her dreams, her nightmares, her memories. ‘It was probably the fusion of catharsis and hate that did it. Working through my issues by putting them onto the page, only to shoot them through with a strong dose of anger and resentment.’ She has a story crying out to be told.

Although Kitty insists it’s fictional, there’s enough fact in it to identify people, places and events, and the book triggers powerful reactions. Her father and his new wife are incensed by the revelations. Her stepmother takes actions that have massive consequences. And 33 years after the tragedy, Kitty is summonsed to Newcastle to a police station. She is under caution, not yet arrest. But what she has to say could change all that.

Walter captures the perspective of a young girl sufficiently authentically for me to be taken in. I believed her account of what happened … the narrative that found expression in Kitty’s book. Writing it was ‘an act of self-therapy’; it blows demons right out into open view. Kitty herself knows she couldn’t cope with the attention a true-to-life memoir would attract, but nor can she relinquish her personal take on events and injustices. As a young girl she attributed human emotions to spiders and beetles; her mind has been altered by the things she’s seen in her childhood, by the emotions she’s suppressed. Small wonder that her own behaviours and reactions fall outside the box of normality.

The ending is rather too neat for my personal taste, but I was relieved that Kitty survived the re-living of her past. I cared about the child turned woman, and that’s another key element in the success of this book.



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Man’s Search for Meaning

HEALTH WARNING: This week’s post may not be easy or desirable reading for those who are finding life tough right now.

In a week where the headlines revolve around the financial implications of a global pandemic, bitter in-fighting in the Scottish government, and the revelations of a woman who found the burden of royal life too much after a couple of years, coming at a time when a proud 99-year-old prince who gave up a successful career and the next 70-odd years of his personal ambitions, to always walk two steps behind his wife, lies ill in hospital … well, I, for one, was looking for perspective.

And I found it in the depths of the Holocaust.

During WWII, psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps – as an inmate, not as a doctor. But he survived and went on to be professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School until his death in 1997, the author of thirty books. So when he speaks about the importance of finding meaning in life, we ought, at the very least, to sit up and listen.

I certainly did.  Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust – written in 1945 – has been described as ‘profoundly honest’ … ‘inspiring’ … ‘deeply sensitive’ … ‘influential and eloquent’ …’wise, kind, and comforting’. It’s all of those things. And it’s eminently readable to boot.

The bulk of this slim volume is not so much a fascinating account of his own three years of appalling treatment in one concentration camp after another, but his analysis of what suffering of this depth and magnitude reveals about mankind, and what he learned about himself through the experiences. Here he was, ‘stripped to naked existence‘, quite literally. With the exception of his sister, his entire family – father, mother, brother, wife – perished in the camps.
How could he – every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination – how could he find life worth preserving?
He dug deep to discover why.

He unpicked, with a kind of detached professional interest, the gradual dulling of emotion, which inured prisoners to horrific sights, sounds, smells and tastes, as well as a brutality and sadism normally unknown to them. He watched the apathy and blunted sensitivities helping his fellow inmates acquire a protective shell – a mechanism of self-defence which eventually detached them from the frequent beatings. He observed the detail of human behaviour in these appalling circumstances, translated it into psychopathological terms, and explained the ‘Why?’- why they followed like sheep; why they sought the centre of the group during marches; why they ripped clothes and food from still warm corpses; why they secreted their meagre ration of bread in their pocket, taking a crumb at a time throughout the day. Throughout his incarceration, he retained this sense of medical curiosity, pitting received wisdom against lived reality in these uniquely horrific conditions, and sometimes he found both medical texts and his own reservoir of knowledge wanting.

And gradually, over time, he discovered first hand ‘the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.’ And that ‘love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.’ Even though he had no means of knowing whether she was alive or dead, nothing could touch the strength of his love for his young wife (she had in fact died aged just 23).

But good does not always prevail, and he saw his fair share of evil, before concluding that everyone has a choice as to how they deal with adversity. ‘The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or, in a bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.‘ Dr Frankl himself found the courage and resources to make a victory of the experiences, to turn this humiliating life into an inner triumph.

One of the tactics he adopted to gain this inner strength and mastery over his present adversity, was to imagine himself giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! By this method he somehow rose above the present situation and observed the sufferings as if they were already in the past. Nevertheless, he remained humble and understanding and forgiving of others’ less robust approach. When he saw them steal, or act meanly or brutally, he refused to condemn: ‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’ Nor would he judge any group as a whole, not even those who routinely harmed him. None were made up of all angels or all devils; indeed, in his thinking, there are only two races of men in this world – the ‘decent‘ and the ‘indecent‘.

But of course, he saw utter despair and hopelessness elsewhere in Auschwitz and Dachau. And it was through the inmates who were at rock bottom, contemplating suicide, that the psychiatrist in him recognised a fundamental truth. ‘When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized‘ – it could be a father to his child; or an author to his unfinished creative or scientific work – ‘it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude … He knows the “why” of his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.‘ An understanding shared with Nietzsche.

And it was by this route, that Dr Frankl honed his own version of existential analysis – ‘logotherapy‘. Essentially logotherapy involves searching for the thing that stops a person committing suicide, the one thing that anchors him to life, and using this as the guide-line for psychotherapy, to help him find meaning in life. One is moved to ask, Who better to steer others away from the torments that are devouring them, than this exceptional man?

Part 2 of this little book is a brief capsule version of Viktor Frankl’s therapeutic doctrine: Logotherapy in a Nutshell. As he says himself, it’s a pretty hopeless task to try to collapse twenty volumes in German into thirty small pages in English! Not much hope I can do it in a couple of sentences, then. In essence though, logotherapy focuses on the meaning to be fulfilled by the patient in the future. Man inherently needs ‘something’ for the sake of which to live, and he desires a life that is as meaningful as possible. Using logotherapy, a patient is assisted to identify what this ‘something’ is, and is then reorientated towards the meaning of his life. Dr Frankl himself felt a deep desire to write the manuscript he had started before he was taken to the camps. That helped him survive.

Not your average Holocaust book; but a remarkable tribute to the triumph of hope and endurance against insuperable odds, and a potential doorway towards finding meaning and purpose in our own lives.














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