Hazel McHaffie

House Rules

Life interrupted

Boy, what a sweltering July! Record-breaking stuff. The lawns are already brown but the flowers seem to be thriving …

LiliesA good time to be out and about ‘on holiday’ with the children rather than indoors trying to work. Water has featured rather a lot to keep everyone’s temperature under control …Cooling off in the seaanimals provided a happy distraction …Feeding goats by handand some daringly fast travel generated a welcome breeze …Go-kartingBeing in loco parentis to two of my grandchildren for a couple of weeks reminds me of how much effort goes into encouraging youngsters to be courteous, well-mannered and decent little people. We all want to be able to take them out into polite society and not be humiliated or embarrassed, don’t we? It’s not a big ask.

So what would you do if one of yours make rude gestures, or shouted obscenities at complete strangers in shops?  Or let out wild shrieks and blasphemy in a tranquil church? Or abused themselves in public places? What would you think of the parents if you were simply a witness to such behaviour?

No, I’m not describing life chez nous this past fortnight; my own personal experience of such things is limited to that of a passing stranger. But I’ve watched documentaries on the subject, and seen something of the horror for families dealing with compulsive swearing, shouting and antisocial behaviours. Somehow though, up to now my sympathy has been largely with the parents. I couldn’t imagine ever going anywhere with a child who screamed profanities or simply had to tap a door sixteen times, twenty-nine times a day. Or did antisocial things in public places.

My latest discovery, Life, Interrupted by James McConnel, is therefore, an instructive read, although I should probably add a caveat: it might offend the sensibilities of some. It tells the autobiographical story of award-winning composer, James, who started to twitch and sniff compulsively when he was six, and lived with increasing forceful and obsessive behaviours until he was eventually diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at the age of thirty-two. (Hard to believe no one identified his problem earlier; his symptoms were classic.)

Now, I might as well confess from the outset, that I needed to hear this message for very personal reasons. I have a very low level of tolerance for perfectly ordinary nervous tics and repetitive actions – even harmless ones like squeaking shoes, sniffing, picking spots/nail/ears, flicking the pages of a book/end of a pen … I’m not proud of this failing; but it’s inbuilt and inherited, and it’s something I’ve had to live with all my long-legged life. The endless repetition drives me nutty inside; I’ve learned for the most part not to show my irritation on the outside – I think! And hope.

So I’m hugely admiring of the parents, nanny, teachers and fellow students, and girlfriends who managed to overlook the plethora of jerks, sounds and compulsive behaviours that James exhibits – the good and kindly ones at least. There are plenty of boys at his boarding school, similarly bound for Eton, who are merciless to the point of cruelty. And wherever he goes James himself harbours this deep sense that he doesn’t quite fit; he’s a ‘nearly person’. He repeatedly ‘fails’, adding each time to his growing sense of disappointment and rejection. He has no idea how to engage in normal social interchange with his peers; he simply can’t omit any of his rituals in order to get to a seminar on time; he finds it impossible to see past his obsession about the symmetry and rightness of words and numbers to answer exam questions.

Life, Interrupted, though, gave me a better sense of the stranglehold this condition has on the person himself, the premonitory urges he has to fight every single day, the aftermath and consequences of each outburst, the impotence he feels in the face of this compulsion.

James calls his nemesis ‘the Controller‘, and later ‘the Beast‘, and it’s small wonder that he seeks refuge from its pernicious influence in the two things that tame it: music and alcohol. The first soothes it, the second deadens it.

For him it’s more than the occasional shouted expletive or violent jerking; it’s a whole range of feelings which he must constantly fight against or appease:

‘I have this terrible urge to crush boxes of vibrating eggs, touch fridges, check under the bed for men in blue coats, check in lavatories for arse-pecking birds, smash glasses, count baked bean slogans, tap light switches, copy things people say, hold my breath until it hurts, jump off ski-lifts, smash teapots, jerk my leg, arm and neck, sniff almost everything, cough, make faces and grunt like a pig.’

James is an exceptionally gifted musician who studied flute, organ and composition at the Royal College of Music in London, but even here the Tourette’s threatened his success. Only when he was helped to understand his condition, to give it a medical name, and to make an informed choice on its management, did he start to take proper control of his life and career. Since then he has gone on to write hundreds of scores for the theatre, musicals, documentaries and dramas. What a triumph over adversity. His nemesis has become ‘the Brat‘, much more benign and less controlling.

A sobering read especially for an intolerant person like me.

This one (though non-fiction) joins the list that includes Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Jodi Picoult’s House Rules (featuring protagonists with autism); Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (dementia); Ben Elton’s Inconceivable (infertility), etc. All easy enjoyable reads that have helped me develop that little bit of extra sensitivity, understanding and tolerance. Which as you know, is my own aim as a novelist.

Now, back to full time grandparenthood … It’s the turn of the older two children this time, and they start off with more normal temperatures.

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Jodi Picoult as ebook

As you know I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. House RulesBut I confess I had a bit of a revival of interest when I read House Rules (reviewed on this blog back in February). Super book about autism.

So, when I was deciding which books to sample on the Kindle – just to check whether I really really did want to leap into the twenty-first century – one of the first on my list was Sing you Home. I read it ages ago but it’s taken me till now to get around to posting my comments. Which probably says a lot about my rating of the book.

Sing you HomeThe story revolves around Zoe and Max Baxter whose marriage is on the rocks after a number of failed attempts to have a baby. (Yeah, yeah, I know. I do bang on about these issues.) Anyway, Zoe finds comfort in Vanessa whose work as a school counsellor overlaps with her own music therapy. They go on to ‘marry’ and decide they want children.

Zoe already has frozen embryos left over from her IVF with Max. Using them seems like a no-brainer. But Max is now a born-again religious zealot, vigorously opposed to same sex unions, and he fights Zoe’s claims through the courts.

OK, some of the issues are my territory but that doesn’t mean I’m bound to like books on these subjects. Indeed, I can be super critical of the way authors deal with medicine and ethics. So, what was my verdict on Sing you Home? Hmm.

It’s the usual Picoult formula:
Major social issues
Multiple voices speaking in the first person.
Lots of amateur psychology.
Big social issues.
A courtroom drama

It has one unique feature:
Accompanying songs, the lyrics of which were composed by Picoult herself. An interesting ‘gimmick’, entirely fitting with the story line about a music therapist who reaches troubled people through songs.

A few amusing/thoughtful quotes to make you smile/wonder:
Max on the effect of infertility on their marriage
‘Our sex life had become like Thanksgiving dinner with a dysfunctional family – something you have to show up for, even though you’re not really having a good time … want had become need and then obsession … There was no room in my marriage for me anymore, except as genetic material.’

Vanessa on society’s attitude to homosexuality
‘I remember my mother telling me that, when she was a little girl in Catholic school, the nuns used to hit her left hand every time she wrote with it. Nowadays, if a teacher did that, she’d probably be arrested for child abuse. The optimist in me wants to believe sexuality will eventually become like handwriting: there’s no right way and wrong way to do it. We’re all just wired differently.
It’s also worth noting that, when you meet someone, you never bother to ask if he’s right- or left-handed.
After all: Does it really matter to anyone other than the person holding the pen?’

Zoe’s on school canteen
‘It looks like every other school cafeteria I’ve ever seen – a life-size petri dish breeding social discontent, students sorting themselves into individual genuses: the Popular Kids, the Geeks, the Jocks, The Emos.’

Vanessa’s on court protocol
‘The clerk scrambles forward to make his announcement as Judge O’Neill strides off the bench, so that we all rise, too, like some magnetic after-effect of his anger.’

I liked:
The insights into what music therapy can achieve with the depressed, the dying, the dementing.
The sympathetic and empathetic principal female characters.

I disliked:
The stereotypical portrayal of bigoted right-wing Christianity.
The pseudo-psychology everybody seems to indulge in.
The occasional misuse of medical terms (or maybe it’s simply American shorthand).
The anomalies in the formatting that crept in during conversion.

So, a mixed bag. Not a patch on House Rules.

Oh, just before I go, if you’re weighed down by the stress of Christmas preparations, or feeling jaded by lack of daylight hours, or in anyway down in the dumps, I recommend you go to dovegreyreader‘s post for Saturday December 10. It’s called Security knitting alert …start casting on everyone and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.


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Big issues and compelling reads

I wonder how many of you enjoy a book that tackles one of life’s big issues. The kind that makes you ask, ‘What would I have done in that situation?‘ Not everyone does, I know. Some people tell me they’re looking for escape from life’s challenges, they don’t want their leisure hours to be troubled by injustice or suffering or tragic choices. Ergo: ‘Sorry, but I won’t be reading your novels any time soon!

But me, I like something gritty, something that makes me stop and think. Dark and difficult sucks me in. And I prefer to take my time considering my response to delicate or unexpected situations, rather than risk crashing in with hob-nailed boots. Comes from years spent walking alongside families struggling with tragedy and loss, I guess. Or maybe I’m just a slow thinker.

I’ve had another good wallow in just such a book recently – a novel.

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with author Jodi Picoult. Cons? Her formulaic style; and the way she endows all her characters with the capacity for philosophising and uttering wise insights. Pros? The readable way she deals with big questions. Having put her on one side for a long time now, I came to her latest, House Rules, with a fresher mind. And this time the subject matter eclipsed the irritating aspects, so I enjoyed it much more than the last few she’s written.

House RulesJacob Hunt is eighteen. He’s obsessed with crime, and can recite laws and forensic facts verbatim. He can’t abide the colour orange. He lives by fixed rules. He has Asperger’s. Although he’s high-functioning, he finds it impossible to make friends. But there’s one exception: a young student, Jess Ogilvy, who’s paid to teach him social skills. Jess understands him, she has time for him … until a new boyfriend starts to monopolise her time and thoughts. Jacob is not a happy bunny.

But then, Jess is found dead. The finger points at Jacob. The evidence is overwhelming.

His mother, Emma, is torn between love for her son and a desire for justice to prevail. She’s the one who calls the police. She’s the one who fights for a fair trial that accommodates Jacob’s special needs. But she’s all too conscious that the symptoms of Asperger’s – the tics, the inappropriate actions and expressions, the lack of eye-contact – can all be interpreted as evidence of guilt.

Emma’s other son, Theo, is just fourteen and harbouring his own secrets and problems. Her ex-husband, Henry, reappears unexpectedly, but now she sees warning signs in him too. Her employer reckons the mother of a murderer can’t be a suitable person to continue writing an agony column for her publication.

Throw in a novice lawyer, a sensitive police officer, and a singularly unattractive boyfriend, and you have the usual melting pot for one of Picoult’s classic protracted legal wrangles.

But what shines through this fiction is the effect of Asperger’s, not only on the person who bears the diagnosis, but also on his family, on everyone he comes into close contact with. I do personally know a number of people on the autistic spectrum and I thought I was reasonably understanding, but this book gave me much better insights into the world they inhabit – rather like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time did when that came out in 2003. Or the Dustin Hoffman film, Rain Man.

I sincerely hope this book will make a difference in real lives. And I salute Picoult for her ability to combine a gripping narrative with a big issue – a delicate balance I constantly struggle to achieve.


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