Hazel McHaffie

mental illness

Books, lists and preparations

Yesss! I had no less than three good excuses for sitting down for hours with a book In December, when I really should have been busy ticking things off the to-do list glaring at me from my desk. Three cast iron excuses to boot. 1. I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted, and was under instruction to take things easy for a couple of days. 2. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice making it inadvisable to venture out. 3. The author of the said book is Linda Gillard, and after the year she’s had, I was keen to review her book before Christmas. Which reminds me … 4. The book’s set at Christmas time so the mood was exactly right for reading it in December.

House of SilenceHouse of Silence is Linda’s fourth novel, and although it once again features mental illness and dysfunctional families, it’s otherwise very different from the three earlier ones I’ve read. Good start. As you know, I’m somewhat allergic to formulaic writing.

Gwen Rowland is a wardrobe assistant for film and television productions. She’s good at it too. But she’s alone in the world.

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs, and my Uncle Frank did men – boys if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ’90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectfully, cirrhosis of the liver, a drugs overdose and AIDS … My mother, fond as she was of cliches, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And Sasha did.

Since the death of her mother, Gwen has dreaded Christmas with its appalling memories, and essential loneliness. So she finds it hard to understand why actor-boyfriend Alfie Donovan is reluctant to take her to Norfolk for his family celebrations. He has no choice but to go; it’s his duty to visit his mother and sisters. But why isn’t he appreciative of the richness of his own privilege – not just relatives, but a stately Elizabethan-manor-house home, and celebrity? Why isn’t he keen to share it?

Eventually Gwen wangles an invitation, though Alfie predicts it’ll be her ‘second-worst Christmas‘ ever. She warms instantly to the practical but eccentric sister Viv, and the scatty but creative Hattie, who still live at Creake Hall, but she grows increasingly disturbed by the changes in Alfie. Where is the family affection? What has made Rachel Holbrook, renowned children’s author, and their mother, hide in her room, granting only occasional audiences to visitors? Who is the mysterious gardener, Marek Zbydniewski, who sees right into Gwen’s soul? And what exactly is Hattie trying to tell her?

The cold and cavernous house is full of photographs and portraits, but they aren’t what they purport to be either. The sisters offer explanations for some of the discrepancies, but Gwen is growing increasingly mistrustful of everything about this family. Things just don’t add up. Who are they? And what secrets are they concealing? As she works on one of Hattie’s unfinished patchwork quilts, Gwen unravels more confusion and mystery that take her into a labyrinth of such complexity that the reader has to keep readjusting his or her own compass.

We’ve come to expect richness and depth in her characters from this author, who combines a light touch with thorough attention to detail. This time the layers of authenticity come from psychology, quilting, gardening, writing, acting, music. And although the underlying tale takes us into dark places of the mind, there’s plenty of light and shade, with eccentricities and humour providing the contrast and lifting the spirits.

So, the verdict? I enjoyed the book greatly. No difficulty sitting tight for a day and a half. Although, to be ultra-pernickety, I confess I’d personally have preferred a less tidied-up ending, and far fewer exclamation marks …! Sorry, Linda, but your prose is strong enough not to need them.

OK, review posted, now I can get back to that to-do list.

Decorate the house …decorated fireplaceWrap parcels …parcelsBake cakes … mull wine … Relax! I’m not going to bore you with humdrum domesticity. No, only wish you all peace and happiness whatever the season means to you.

 

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Enterprise writ large

I’m always intrigued by initiatives that create unusual opportunities. And impressed by people who have the vision to see the opportunities in the first place. Two experiences this week warmed the cockles of my heart – whatever cockles are …?

On Saturday I was visiting the Pitlochry area – spectacularly beautiful scenery, as you can see. (SORRY the images in this post were mistakenly deleted and I don’t now have the originals.) And it was there that a secondhand book shop caught my fancy – on the railway station! How cunning is that for an idea? A lovely warm haven from the snell winds that whistle through these open stations. And what an Aladdin’s cave it proved to be with the books all carefully and methodically shelved, and a welcoming cosiness that just enveloped you from the outset. You really wouldn’t care how late the train was here – indeed you’d more likely be so absorbed you’d miss it! On this occasion I had the advantage of visiting in the car, so no problem lugging away my purchases, because of course, I had to support such a brilliant enterprise generously, didn’t I? Anyone got a shoehorn to lever this latest batch of books into my book shelves?

The second notable experience started on Monday with a request for a book review. It came from an author who’s gritty determination to succeed drives her beyond all the obstacles that life throws at her. Lesser mortals might indulge in a spot of lying in a darkened room, bemoaning their lot, leaving all non-essential activity for another year. Not Linda Gillard. She’s already battled mental illness, but this year she’s been through all the mental and physical anguish of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer (documented on her author Facebook pages.) And yet she’s somehow found the energy to promote her own ebooks, House of Silenceso successfully indeed that her latest one, House of Silence, has been selected by Amazon UK for their Top 10 “Best of 2011” in the Indy Author category. Impressive or what? I’m so thrilled for her. This kind of exceptional grit and determination deserves reward. And I’ll certainly be reviewing her book in due course. I’ve read and commented on three of her earlier ones already, so I have high hopes of a great read.

She makes me feel lazy! So what have I been doing this week? Nothing as spectacular as Linda that’s for sure – mainly beavering away at a children’s story and a couple of life-histories; and filling rucksacks for  the charity Mary’s Meals; and making costumes for the annual Christmas play for my grandchildren. And no, before you ask, I haven’t given up on my current novel, Over My Dead Body. The first full draft is completed, but I know it needs two things: added depth with stronger subplots; and tightening up of the writing. I recognise that, but I can’t correct it at the moment. I need to distance myself a bit from it; I’m still too close to the action. It takes a ruthless detachment to home in on the faults, weed out the indulgent phrases, the grammatical anomalies, and the inconsistencies. Which reminds me …

Did you watch the programme about Ian Rankin this week? I was amazed to hear that his editor still does major hatchet jobs on his final drafts. Not just picking up on minor typos but suggesting radical changes to plots and characters. Hello? Somehow I expected a writer of his stature to have learned every trick in the book, and to be his own harshest critic. What do I know?

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Take it as read

It takes a while to catch up with news after a break away, but in this week’s trawl, two headlines in particular caught my attention.

The first was this one: Take it as read – good fiction teaches us how to be human beings, a thoughtful article by Graeme Archer in The Daily Telegraph, where he said:

‘… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.’

Very much the premise upon which I write my own novels.

Indeed, I was thinking about this a lot while I was on holiday in Italy. I took the trusty Kindle well-loaded and managed to read two and a half novels in airports and trains and planes and odd moments of inactivity: Untying the Knot Emotional GeologyEmotional Geology and Untying the Knot both by Linda Gillard, and A Sister’s Gift by Giselle Green. Through these tales I was taken into the lives and minds of characters grappling with mental illness, obsessive personalities, infertility, conflicted family relationships, surrogate pregnancy. Easy reads all (as befits a holiday break), but it’s fair to say they enriched my understanding of the challenges and thinking of other people in these situations. I shan’t ever experience most of these things personally, but I’d like to think I’d have empathy enough should I come into contact with those for whom these things are a lived reality.

The second headline was attached to an article my daughter cut out of the newspaper for me: ‘Why did my brother die in agony?’, subheaded: ‘Terminally ill patients are suffering slow and painful deaths because doctors dare not fall foul of the law against assisted suicide.’  Yep, it instantly grabbed me by the throat, as she knew it would.

Well-known cookery expert, Prue Leith, was describing her brother David’s terminal battle with excruciatingly painful cancer of the bones. When the morphine was doing its job, he was pain-free, joking, and sharing quality time with his wife and four children. But the dosage of morphine was sufficient for only three hours out of every four for which it was prescribed. For that fourth hour he was in agony. The solution seems obvious and simple, doesn’t it? Naturally enough, various relatives appealed, nay, ‘pleaded’, for help. The answer though was what shocked me: the nurses ‘couldn’t’ give any more pain relief. They sympathised, even told the family they would personally be willing to increase the dose, but they were powerless to do so; the law precluded it. They also said, no one admitted these situations existed. (By this time I was at fever pitch!)

Now, of course, no one with warm blood coursing through their veins could fail to be moved by the obvious distress the Leith family all suffered. But the story left me personally feeling frustrated and vexed. This man clearly needed more medication. And it can, it really can be given without breaking the law. Palliative medicine is an extremely well developed discipline; dedicated teams of experts in pain management are fully empowered to administer effective measures (drugs and others treatments) in these circumstances, to ensure ongoing comfort and dignity and a peaceful death. Which they are able to do in all except a limited number of situations. And by Prue’s own admission, David’s pain came into the category of controllable by morphine.

Both the subheading and Prue’s concluding message – ‘The present state of affairs is monstrous. With 80 percent of the population in favour of assisted dying, what are they waiting for?’ – missed the point. It wasn’t assisted death this man needed, it was legal and legitimate, adequate pain relief.

There are indeed exceptional cases where the laws relating to assisted dying need to be challenged (I’ve discussed them at length on this blog in the past), but this is not one of them. Instead of saying they couldn’t give adequate medication, those staff caring for David should have been calling for a man/woman who could. Let’s not confuse the two issues.

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