Hazel McHaffie

No experience wasted

It’s a well-known fact that there are two types of readers: those who insist on persevering to the bitter end once they start reading (that’s me), and those who abandon a book if it doesn’t grab their attention within a few pages or chapters. Apparently at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this month, crime writer Mark Billingham urged his audience to adopt the 20-pages rule – if you aren’t hooked in 20 pages, don’t bother continuing. Hmmm.

There’s also a well-known saying that no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And that’s why I persisted with Fire and Rain. Now, I’m a bit of a fan of Diane Chamberlain. She writes about issues close to my heart, and her medical social worker background takes her into my kind of territory. But I have to confess this one didn’t rivet me.

After a rather laboured first stab, I decided to change tack. Instead of looking for a gripping tale, I’d study her technique. You see? No experience needs to be wasted.

From that angle, the most valuable lesson came through the character of Carmen Perez, a journalist who’s had a serious breakdown and attempted to end her life. Not only has she learned that her longed-for baby son has serious disabilities – brain damage, blindness, deafness, inability to speak – from which he will never recover; but she now knows that her husband is to blame. She can’t forgive him. Her marriage is over. She refuses even to visit her son. What’s more, when she finally returns to work, she’s seen as fragile, unsuited to the rigours of hard reporting, and her career is in jeopardy. She sees potential in the appearance of a strange reclusive man, calling himself Jeff Cabrio, who occupies one of her rental properties, and claims to be able to manufacture rain for a valley devastated by drought and wild fires. Fired up by renewed hope of reclaiming her position in the world of work, she begins to search for the secrets she’s convinced will lead her to criminal behaviour of some kind. Her desperate need to succeed drives her to extreme lengths at the expense of his safety and security and privacy.

Occupying another two properties Carmen owns are her ex-husband Chris Garrett, acting mayor of Valle Rosa, and his secretary, Mia Tanner, who is also a talented clay sculptor. Everyone carries the scars of past traumas. Everyone is hiding something. When Mia forms a relationship with ‘the rainmaker ‘ things get even more complicated. When her own interest in Chris is reignited it becomes an even more tangled web

Gradually Carmen uncovers facts about Jeff Cabrio, aka Robert Blackwell, which lead her to vulnerable and unsuspecting sources of information. Each time she must weigh up the ethical questions behind who she approaches, how she presents herself, and what she does with the information they divulge. Initially her ambition drives her to step beyond the boundaries of common decency, alienating those involved, but earning the admiration of viewers and producers. At what point is eroding another person’s privacy too high a price to pay? Time will tell.

It’s a neat tactic. We, the readers, gradually learn more and more about the characters, their chequered histories, their secrets, their lies, as she unravels the past. We begin to piece together a story which links these characters in bizarre and tender ways. We are carried along by the desire to know and understand more. Taken from this perspective, in the end it was worth the effort of ploughing through a rather improbable tale that didn’t appeal as much as most of Chamberlain’s work has done hitherto. Certainly not a waste of time. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that I started reading it in the Emergency Department of a hospital had something to do with my reactions.

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