Hazel McHaffie

literary tactics

The Courage Tree

Janine simply wants her daughter Sophie to lead a normal life. Since the age of three her days have been dominated by illness and treatment for an inherited kidney condition, but now she’s on an experimental herbal regime. And,¬†against the wishes of Sophie’s father and her grandparents, Janine has allowed her to go on her first overnight Girl Scout camp.

Disaster strikes. Sophie and her friend are missing, feared dead. One by one the official searchers accept that she cannot possibly have survived for so long in these wild uninhabited forest conditions, and scale back their efforts. But not her mother. She knows that every day of waiting for news means a day closer to Sophie’s death; that without dialysis and the herbal infusion, she will certainly die; but Janine will not accept that her daughter is dead … yet. She is relentless in her search … but will she be in time?

However, this is a far more complex tale than that of a missing girl. Hmmm. Would I choose to weave so many angst-ridden threads together?

*So many troubled parent-child relationships

… There’s runaway actress Zoe and her daughter Marti, imprisoned for murdering a rival actress. Immersed in her own career and her high-profile marriage, Zoe turned a blind eye to so much during those growing-up years. Whose daughter will she save now when the chips are down?

… Janine’s parents actively oppose everything she does, they hardly speak to her these days. They oppose her career choices, her handling of Sophie’s health, her divorce from Sophie’s dad, her new boyfriend.

… Sophie’s parents struggle in many ways – with conflicting ideas on how to treat her, guilt about their own culpability in the disease, Joe’s affair, Janine’s relationship with the gardener.

*So many secrets

… Zoe fakes her own suicide … why?

… Marti has escaped from prison but her past as well as her present are littered with unexplained horrors. Did she really murder and commit arson and torment other children and animals?

… Lucas, the gardener on the mansion estate where Janine’s parents are caretakers, is definitely hiding something. What exactly is he poring over on his computer in the tree house? Why has he got a magazine with a photo of a naked little girl in his rubbish bin? Why must he always wear a blue splint on his wrist? What’s so pressing he must desert Janine when Sophie is missing in the forest? Why did he take the gardening job, and why has he faked his references?

… Sophie’s dad, Joe, is leaning on his close friend Paula but not committing to a relationship with her – why?

*So many races against time

… To get Sophie effective treatment while there’s still a chance she could live.

… To find the missing Sophie before she succumbs to her disease.

… To get ex-con Marti to a safe place before the authorities find her.

… To save gardener Lucas from the effects of his own rash actions.

*So many threads to hold at once

Would I tackle so many in my own writing? Probably not.

I’m a bit of a fan of Diane Chamberlain, and I’ve read almost all her novels, so I was surprised at the much more convoluted and complex story lines in this one. But all credit to her for holding so many reins in her hands, and controlling them so effectively.

And I share her cautionary view about appreciating the here and now: ‘If your life is tied up in worrying about the future, you never enjoy what’s possible right now.’¬† When your child is facing a life-limiting disease, it’s incredibly difficult to put this adage into practice. But how sad to miss the joy of each precious moment today.


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Literary choices

Charles Ross appleAutumn leaves





As the cold winds whip through the cracks and the snow gleams on the hills, my mind goes back to that wonderful Indian summer we were enjoying a few weeks ago. Temperatures into the 20s, mmm. Vibrant colours, cloudless blue skies. Remember them? Far too glorious to be inside, so I split my working days between my study – pressing on with publication of Inside of Me – and out in the garden – reading. And now that warmth and sunshine is a memory I’m so glad I seized the moment.

Afterwards Afterwardsby Rosamund Lupton seemed like a good choice. One that would make made me usefully ponder literary tactics and styles. And perhaps question my own preferences.

Plot: a private school maliciously set on fire; teenage Jenny trapped inside; her mother running into the blaze to rescue her; her young brother paralysed with fear left outside; a sinister presence hovering around the ICU; the unravelling of marriages and secrets in the hunt for the arsonist.

Verdict: Instant hook, plenty of ongoing tension to juggle with. Tick.

The range of suspects: a presumed wife-beater, a touchy-feely male teacher recently sacked from the school, an 8-year-old boy, and an unknown stalker who’s been threatening Jenny with everything from hate-mail, excreta through the letter box, paint being thrown over her, to an oxygen tube being tampered with.

Verdict: Lots of false trails and no, I didn’t guess the real culprit too early. Tick.

Unusual literary tactic: Jenny and her mum are spirits now, freed from their damaged bodies lying immobile in hospital. They can penetrate anywhere; a useful literary device to give the reader insights, observe actions, know thoughts.

Verdict: Not sure. Saw the point; had difficulty suspending disbelief.

Narrative style: Second person. Hmm, my least favourite style, I confess. The ‘you’ in this case is Jenny’s dad; the narrator her mum. But it works in that it tracks the whole family’s responses to this tragedy.

Verdict: It was fit for purpose but didn’t win me over to second person narration. Am I getting too set in my ways?

Little literary gems:

A woman police officer speaks in her ‘uniform-and-truncheon voice’.

The mother, Grace, is running towards the burning school at ‘the velocity of a scream’.

The smoke went into her lungs and she was ‘breathing barbed wire’.

Memories from the past become ‘a paracetamol for my aching mind’.

‘Hard lines of misery are scraped across‘ Jenny’s grandmother’s face. Medical facts hit her ‘like flying glass, cutting new lines’.

Jenny’s phone is a teenage ‘life in eight centimetres of plastic’.

Grace is told that the ovaries of her twenty week female fetus are already formed. ‘I felt the future curled up inside me: my body a Russian doll of time.’

Verdict: Huge admiration (tinged with envy maybe?) for the author’s ability to toss in such evocative phrases. Tick. Tick.

OVERALL: An enjoyable and thought-provoking read during our extended summer, and a wake up call not to prejudge any aspect of a writer’s style. Everyone deserves a fair hearing.Reading in the autumn sun

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