Hazel McHaffie

abuse

Life after Life

A bonus of lockdown was acquiring ‘new’ books from those donated to our outdoor bookshelf. One such was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, about which I’d seen and read excellent reports. (I’m horrified to discover it’s eight years since it came out, and I’m only now getting round to reading it! Too many books, not enough hours in the day.) But somehow, living in this parallel universe of pandemic for the last eighteen months has made Atkinson’s premise – What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? – even more pertinent; so perhaps after all it’s a good time to read it.

The hook on the back cover is tantalising:
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life?

An ingenious premise upon which to build a novel, huh? And it challenges us to think, What would I do differently, given the opportunity? Would I even want to change things?

Add to that the time period of the story – 1910-1967 – including two great wars, and the implications of a second chance assume even more momentous proportions.
What if a pretty English girl had shot Adolf Hitler in November 1930?
What if a pretty British girl was actually living in Germany when war was declared?
The historic detail relating to big events gives a solid skeleton to this story, but inevitably some factual accuracy is forfeited in the name of literature, as the author herself acknowledges: To find the truth as the heart of a book, a certain amount of reality falls by the way.

Ursula Todd, born in 1910, is a strange child with odd ‘powers’. Was it reincarnation, or clairvoyance, or deja vu, or living in a parallel universe, sixth sense, or what? Certainly her mother thinks she needs ‘fixing’. A Harley Street psychiatrist does his best when she’s 10, but as she grows up, and bad things happen to her, Ursula persists in wondering if death is the answer; she can then have another stab at life and hopefully a happier ending.

We follow her different lives through her rural upbringing with an indulgent father and a superior mother, adult life in London, during the Blitz, and in post-war Berlin. She goes from knowing child, to rape victim, abused wife, assassin, mistress, rescue warden. Back and forth. At times she doesn’t even recognise herself.

It was, I must admit somewhat discombobulating to live through a traumatic experience of the death of a child or young person, only to have them return later in the book very much alive because an alternative version of their lives is being narrated. Short of cataloguing each iteration, I couldn’t hold them all in my head, so went for simply enjoying the moment.

Something of the challenge underpinning this story is captured in these few lines of dialogue about half way through the book:
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’  Ursula said. ‘If one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
   ‘Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?’ Ralph asked mildly.
   ‘Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.’
   ‘But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood?’

For me this book came into its own in the section A Long Hard War, where Ursula is a warden dealing with the aftermath of the bombings in London. It poignantly captures the fragility of life, the human tragedy on both sides, the courage and stamina people can find within them, and the importance of small things.

When asked what the book is about, Atkinson says, It’s about being English. That’s not what I took from it. For me it’s about something much more complex; an unravelling of our multi-layered selves, who we are in our imaginations as well as in different circumstances. And how our destiny can be determined by an accident of birth, or a chance conversation, or a seemingly casual encounter or decision. I’m still mulling over all that … and isn’t that one measure of a successful story?

 

 

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What’s in a name?

You know that point when you think … life can’t get any weirder ….? And it does. Well, I had such a moment this week.

You might have noticed that my beautiful homeland, Cornwall, has been high profile for months – TV programmes, news items, holiday recommendations … now it’s in the spotlight again, this time for re-naming its fish to make them sound more appealing on restaurant menus. Spider crabs become king crab; megrim become Cornish sole. Pilchards have already become Cornish sardine. Made me think about names and what they conjure up. And about competing rights and interests.

But that’s when the ultimate craziness hit me. And it relates to another of my old stamping turfs: the maternity hospital. Midwives in one University Hospitals NHS Trust (Brighton and Sussex) are now being told to stop using terms like ‘breastfeeding’ and ‘breast milk’, and even ‘mothers’ without a qualifying add-on …! Like I say … Hello? OK, I accept that there’s an above average percentage of LGBTQ folk in that area of England, with sensitivities, but still … Has the world gone mad? In a hospital where women are naturally and normally having babies and feeding them from their breasts?

Why, you might well ask. Well, apparently such gender-exclusive terms might cause offence and upset non-binary people.

So, out goes ‘mothers’; in comes ‘mothers or birthing parents’
Out goes ‘breastfeeding’; in comes ‘chestfeeding’
Out goes ‘maternity services department’; in comes ‘perinatal services’
Out goes ‘breastmilk’; in comes ‘human milk’ or ‘chestmilk’ or ‘milk from the feeding mother or parent’
Out goes ‘woman’; in comes ‘woman or person’
Out goes ‘father’; in comes ‘co-parent’ or ‘second biological parent’
Out goes ‘maternal’; in comes ‘maternal and parental’

To begin with, are the folk behind this drive unaware of the facts?
– that men have breastbones
– that men can get breast cancer
– that it’s a biological fact that only women can give birth to babies
– that, in the excitement and responsibility of assisting the delivery of a baby, it’s hard enough to always use acceptable words, without this additional layer of prohibition and verbal diligence
– that in seeking not to offend an Infinitesimally small percentage of the population who object to exclusively female words, they are probably losing the goodwill of the vast majority
– that this attempt to be politically correct and woke, is most likely to put hackles up against the very people it purports to speak for.

I have no wish to attract the venom JK Rowling endured when she challenged a decision to use the expression ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ‘women’, so I will merely leave the matter in your capable hands. As for me, I’m still in recovery stage, and in danger of being left behind with the old dogs beyond learning new tricks.

 

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More festival fun

Wow! I’ve just attended my THIRD virtual book festival of lockdown! Feels like a real indulgence. This one was another trip to MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival, connecting readers with authors.

This time the focus was on historical fiction and included a stellar cast of well known names – Kate Mosse, Victoria Hyslop, Alison Weir, Elizabeth Buchan, Bernard Cornwell. Of course, they were speaking from their own homes, and I was amused to see them in relaxed lockdown mode (without benefit of hairdressers, makeup artists, camera men) side by side on the same screen with their professional promotional photos. But grooming aside, they were every inch the polished, fluent and accomplished professionals in their performance: responding to interview questions, sharing their favourite time periods, their experiences researching their topics or drafting their stories. And a day of listening to them positively enthused me, the old brain whirring into writing mode again.

They also inspired me to dig out a hitherto unread historical novel from my shelves: Philippa Gregory‘s Three Sisters, Three Queens … another household name. Perhaps the craftsmanship behind it will be even more apparent to me now that I’ve just heard about the painstaking work that predates writing such a book, the importance of a firm scaffolding of facts through which characters can weave and wander. Certainly I shall appreciate all over again the way the author must immerse herself in the dates and customs and places and mores of the time, even though most of the research never gets into the book. That’s a lesson I learned early on in my own career as a novelist: the reader mustn’t be aware of the knowledge you the author have acquired, but of course, hearing these marvellous writers talk about their obsessions, what they’ve learned, how much they know, serves only to make admiration of the finished product the more sincere.

Three Sisters, Three Queens will make a change from being back in my own specialist field of medical ethics, too. Three years ago exactly I wrote a post on this blog which looked at the subject of children in trouble through the novels of Susan Lewis. By some weird coincidence this very week a neighbour left the sequel to Stolen, the third book I mentioned back then, on the shelves at the end of our drive. Well, I had to read it, didn’t I? At the end of Stolen, Charlotte Goodman had fled to New Zealand from the UK with a little girl she had stolen from abusive parents. You said Forever picks up the story five years later. By this time Charlotte and lawyer husband Anthony have two other children biologically their own. Chloe, now legally adopted by Charlotte but not Anthony, is causing mayhem both at home and at school. When she threatens the life of the younger children, Charlotte knows drastic action is needed. But what? How can she choose between her children, the little people she loves more than life? She promised Chloe a forever-home; but can she keep that promise?

Lockdown is certainly affording me plenty of new experiences. I’ve even cut my own hair – very very short, slicing into three fingers at the same time! And painted the outside of our windows and doors, and renovated and wallpapered a walk-in-larder. Much ladder-climbing involved. It might just be a relief to get back to sitting safely at my desk writing!

 

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Behind Closed Doors

‘Behind closed doors’ … a familiar slogan, isn’t it? Instantly conjures up the horrors of domestic violence, abuse, and pathological relationships. And too often it’s women who are caught behind those doors, unable or unwilling to seek help, putting on a brave front for the outside world. So it seems like a fitting subject for a week that began with International Women’s Day on March 8th. The flags have already been raised: the Duchess of Cornwall calling for the topic of domestic violence and coercive control to be openly discussed, warning of the corrosive effect of silence; then the Duchess of Sussex using her last solo public platform before she retires from royal life to urge people to respect and value women. So let’s capitalise on that foundation.

Put the same term – ‘behind closed doors – into an Amazon book search, and instantly six titles of novels come up. Hmmm. Odd. My first check when I create a new title for my own books is to make sure it’s unique. But maybe ‘behind closed doors’ is irresistible. It’s so instantly evocative, speaking so powerfully, it can bear repetition without losing impact.

Hey ho. I’ve been sucked in, anyway. I already have two of those six ‘behind closed doors’ books on my shelves. The first one chosen because I’ve enjoyed Susan Lewis‘ writing before, and the second because I was – and still am – devouring anything claiming to be a psychological thriller.

Behind Closed Doors by Susan Lewis isn’t, I have to confess, as compelling as others she’s written. Fourteen-year-old Sophie Monroe has vanished along with her computer, mobile phone and a bag of clothes. The Detective Sergeant who’s investigating the disappearance is painfully reminded of a tragedy that tore her own family apart twenty years ago: her teenage sister vanished and has never been found. She struggles to separate the two stories and maintain perspective and judgement, as a tale of jealousy and fear and secrecy unravels. This one, to my mind, is overly generous with adjectives in places; all the characters seem to have secrets or tragedy in their past; and an improbable number of them have lost children or young parents. So I don’t plan to dwell on that one in this post.

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris on the other hand, promised a lot. A debut novel billed as ‘makes your blood run cold … fast and frantic …heart-pounding … utterly compelling …’ it fits the basic requirements for a psychological thriller which I can analyse without previous baggage.

‘Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.’ So why are there steel shutters on their windows, high walls round their perfect garden, and one window barred? Yep, we’re wary already, aren’t we?

In his professional life, handsome, debonair Jack is the champion of battered wives. Grace has given up her career to be a stay-at-home wife so he doesn’t have to come home to an empty house or an exhausted partner. Losing is not a word in his vocabulary. And ‘everything he does and everything he says is calculated down to the last full stop. He prides himself on uttering only the truth … He is so clever, so very clever.’

Enter new neighbours, Esther and Rufus. Esther is a woman who’s suspicious of perfection. What is it with this completely joined-at-the-hip couple? Why doesn’t Grace have a mobile phone, or have her own email address, or go out to lunch without him, or honour arrangements …?

What really is going on does indeed make the blood run cold. Here is a dark mind, an amoral compass, depravity wrapped up in immaculate manners and a charming devotion. As the past and present inch closer together we are rivetted to the page, willing good to triumph over evil, dreading the psychopath out-manoeuvring the victim. The ending is very cleverly crafted and maintains the suspense to the very last page. Scary stuff but an excellent example of tense and fast-moving plotting.

But behind the fiction, lies the real-life problem. Let’s not forget hidden women everywhere for whom oppression or abuse or injustice in any form is their lived experience.

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The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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A legal blunderbuss

Ashya King is five years old. He’s recently had a cancerous tumour removed from his brain – two major surgeries within a month, in fact. If ever a kiddie needed his mum it’s this one. So how come the authorities thought it appropriate to clap his parents, Naghemeh and Brett, in jail hundreds of miles away from their little boy, in a foreign country where he’d be surrounded by strangers speaking Spanish?

Headline: the searchAccording to media reports, the Kents removed Ashya from Southampton General Hospital without medical consent, thereby jeopardising his life. The father claims he told staff he would be taking his son abroad for a treatment he considered less dangerous than the options they advocated. The family then travelled to Malaga to sell a holiday property to pay privately for a relatively new treatment, proton beam radiotherapy (PBT), in Prague, which the doctors in Southampton had declined to sanction. Hampshire Police issued an international arrest warrant on the grounds of suspected child neglect.

When they were tracked down in Spain the parents were held in custody in a high-security prison in Madrid, Ashya was made a ward of court, police were posted outside his hospital room, his six siblings were denied entry. Can you picture the effect of all this on a desperately ill child said to be unable to speak, eat or drink unaided?

Headline - family bannedCritics have been vociferous – understandably. Words like ‘draconian’, ‘inhumane’, ‘barbaric’, ‘heavy-handed’ abound. The injustice seemed particularly disproportionate when the country is still reeling from the news that the authorities failed hundreds of children in Rotherham who really were abused over a 16 year period. Huge numbers (over 200,000) signed a petition which went to Downing Street.

Headliine - reunitedThen suddenly the authorities did an about-turn, though not before the Kings had been separated from Ashya by 300 miles and several days. David Cameron, recalling the struggles he faced with his own severely disabled son, Ivan, called for ‘an outbreak of common sense’. The Health Secretary offered to fly out an independent oncologist to help advise the parents on the best course of action. Procedures were fast-tracked. This whole fiasco was put down to a breakdown in communication compounded by an over-zealous application of the law.

Headline - accepted in PragueThen came an emergency hearing via a telephone conference; the Kings – once again his legal guardians – were given permission by a judge to fly their little boy to Prague; a private jet was put on standby ready to transfer him; he’s now in hospital there being assessed. A full review of the British authorities role in this whole sad affair has been ordered.

That’s what’s been reported. The picture is, of course, immensely more complicated than this, and we are not in possession of all the facts. We can’t be. But what I do know is that the doctors caring for Ashya have a solemn and binding duty of care for him; they couldn’t just shrug their shoulders and turn a blind eye when he vanished. They also have the advantage of objectivity and specialist knowledge. They will know, as the parents can’t, the real statistics relating to PBT; the range of emotions parents in these desperately difficult circumstances exhibit; the conflicts between maintaining confidentiality and defending their decisions; the tension between protecting the child and supporting the family; the real balance of risks and benefits in this particular situation.

My own issue is not with the tracking down of the family, but the aggressive way they were then treated. Surely everyone can understand the desperate wish to save the life of a beloved child; sometimes grieving and bewildered parents do take extreme action. I’ve witnessed such extreme reactions in my own professional life, I’ve read and heard of many more. It’s a feature of their frustration, despair, dread, powerlessness. Locking them up serves no useful function whatever. It merely adds to the distress of the little patient and his troubled brothers and sisters. And fuels a sense of injustice and mistrust. Who does that help?

 

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