Hazel McHaffie

Dead Tomorrow

The plot thickens

Did you see the news a couple of weeks ago (11 April) about a three-year-old boy who has successfully survived a heart transplant after being kept alive artificially on a Berlin heart machine for 251 days – longer than any other child in Britain? Shortly after he was born, Joe Skerratt was diagnosed with cardiac myopathy – an enlarged and weakened heart. Initially he was treated with medication but when he deteriorated he needed the machine to take over the work of his failing heart. Amazing stuff.

These days my ears prick up as soon as I hear the words ‘transplant’ or ‘organ donation’. And as you know I’m ploughing through a stack of novels that include the subject in some guise or other. Time perhaps to bring you up to date with where I’m at with them, lest you start to suspect this blog is a smokescreen and I’m actually idling on some Caribbean beach. But first a caveat: some of the titles I’m going to mention I really really don’t recommend. I ploughed through them because I need to suss out the potential competition, but you can be more discriminating. (For a sense of my personal assessment shoot across to my Goodreads ratings and reviews.)

I’ve read all except four now and they seem to fall into three categories.

1. There are those that focus on families grappling with tragic circumstances and the impact of organ donation. (eg. Somewhere between Life and Death; One Perfect Day; In a Heartbeat; Stealing Kevin’s Heart; While my Sister Sleeps; Breath; The Household Guide to Dying.) Additional angles are used to provide a narrative thread – the recipients taking on the characteristics of the donor (cellular memory), or families searching for the donor’s identity for various reasons, or unexpected links between the two families. A number of these are geared towards young adults and tend to rather labour the importance of organ donation. And there’s a heavy religious agenda in some of the American ones.

2. Then there are the sci-fi novels, the futuristic and satirical takes on the issue. (eg. Never Let me Go; Heart Seizure; Little Boy Pig; The Samaritan; My Body, My Ashes.) The creation of ‘monsters’ comes into this group. The way-out and highly improbable. Unscrupulous scientists and doctors pushing the boundaries beyond what is ethical. Or mad chases against time and the odds.

3. And thirdly there are the mysteries and thrillers. (eg. Damaged; Blood Work; Coma; Dead Tomorrow; The Midwife’s Confession; Change of Heart.) Individuals and teams conspiring to obtain tissue or organs or indeed whole bodies for personal gain. Apparently this is a live issue in the USA.

I confess I got rather bored with so many books about a single subject. There isn’t much new to excite me in the facts and issues themselves. So the yawn-factor could well be distorting my perspective and judgement. However, analysing the stories is helping me to hone my own novel on this subject.

The first draft of (working title) Over my Dead Body consists of a plausible story centred around a relatively commonplace road traffic accident. But my reading has confirmed a hunch that it needs a second more compelling thread to keep the pages turning. So where do I go from here?

Introduce an element of sci-fi? Nope. Not my bag. Sci-fi can be technically fascinating, and I can admire the brains that project themselves into futuristic possibilities and challenge their readers to ask: Is this a world I would want to see or be part of? I too want to provoke thought and debate, but my personal preference is for the scenarios to be based more on today’s reality.

OK. A thriller then? Well, of all the books I’m most enjoying the medical thrillers with believable insights into the emotions and driving forces of those people caught up in the business of saving lives using transplanted organs. But I’m not sure I have what it takes to sustain this kind of pace, nor whether it would fit with my objectives.

Conclusion? I’m experimenting with an element of mystery and intrigue; weaving in a second more taut storyline of a dark secret that unravels gradually. I’m cautiously optimistic right at this moment but it could all change. It might not work. Or perhaps those last four books will revolutionise my thinking! Watch this space.

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Thinking readers

Wow! I’m so impressed by the skill of some writers. Amazing imagination, incredible ability to hold strands of plots together and weave them into a coherent pattern, stunning empathy with characters experiencing life’s challenges, facility with words that takes me deep into the world they’ve created.

I’m particularly thinking today of Peter James whose Dead Tomorrow I took with me to Devon.

It’s a story about a mother whose young daughter desperately needs a new liver. And about a detective who knows what devastating loss feels like and who suspects human trafficking is taking place on his watch. And about youngsters living on and under the streets of Eastern Europe. And about bodies being dredged up in Brighton minus their major organs …

OK, this isn’t the kind of book that wins the Mann Booker prize. But it is the kind that makes you walk into a lamppost. And it leaves you with lots to think about. How far would I go to save my daughter’s life? How long would I wait before having a missing loved one declared dead? How much would I give up to help street kids abroad? What should I do about the desperate shortage of organs for transplantation?

As readers we all have our preferences. One man’s meat … as they say. But me? I like books that ask these kind of questions. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? Because that’s the kind of novel I write too. Only a couple of weeks now and my sixth one, Remember Remember, should be out. And I start a run of appearances at things. Most of March looks a bit crazy on the calendar so blogs might be brief!

And I’m hoping that Bertrand Russell got it wrong when he said:
Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.
Because encouraging people to think is what I’m all about.

But Russell also said:
I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.
I’m with him on that one. In my novels I always leave lots of scope for my readers to make up their own minds.

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Elephants and ethics – who’s right?

Well, I’m still here! Transpennine Express got me safely to Manchester and back even though they didn’t think it important to have any heating in February now the snow’s gone. And there was no coach E, so my seat reservation was a tad meaningless. But I found a seat anyway and got Direct Red by Gabriel Weston read at last. My frozen feet kept me nicely awake. This surgeon’s tale of her early experiences as a doctor, has been on my list for ages, so it was good to finally have it at the top of the pile. Having worked in hospitals for decades myself the stories resonated, and these are refreshingly honest and humble.

As for my presentation on the place of fiction in bioethics, well, suffice it to say the listening bioethicists didn’t eat me alive. But their minds are definitely on a more exalted plane than mine. They tease out words and ideas and just revel in arguments about what exactly constitutes bioethics; who’s in the circle, who’s out; whether it’s right or wrong to have cctv monitoring or assisted suicide or films giving only part of the picture on one of life’s big questions; what exactly Aristotle was getting at; whether artists should be allowed to shock people … all good exercise for my little grey cells. Just this once! You can read all about it if you’re interested.

The fact that we all see the world in different ways depending on where we stand and how observant and sensitive we are to different things was summed up nicely in this poem by John Godfrey Saxe:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
‘God bless me! but the Elephant
Is like a very wall!’

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, ‘Ho, what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!’

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake
‘I see,’ quote he, ‘the Elephant
Is very like a snake!’

The Fourth reached out an eager hand
And felt about the knee.
‘What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,’ quoth he;
’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!’

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said, ‘E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can.
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!’

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
‘I see,’ quoth he, ‘the Elephant
Is very like a rope!’

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic* wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

*substitute bioethic or scientific or moralistic or whatever. Because the moral applies to all of us in one context or another, doesn’t it?

Hey ho, I return more than ever humbled by my own ignorance. And I confess, relieved to have that experience safely behind me. I can now bend my mind to other things … like family problems in Devon, so I’m off down there for the rest of the week. It takes a full day on the train each way, which means at least two books ticked off my still-to-read list – other people’s mobile phones and conversations permitting. I’m taking February by Lisa Moore and Dead Tomorrow by Peter James. An unexpected bonus. They’ve been tempting me for some time.

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