How to be Brave, by Louise Beech, is a book that I nearly gave up on. I am glad that I did not. When I had read the first hundred pages, the length of time I give a book to grab me, all I could see was the kind of self-absorbed mother I know only too well. Her daughter was behaving like a brat yet she appeared unable to look beyond her precious little snowflake, wronged by a world too blind to recognise such unique wonderfulness and therefore ready to indulge misbehaviour. Is there any mother who cannot see qualities in her child to which the world appears unappreciative? Most will never have to deal with this child developing a life changing illness; who knows how any of us would react to such a shift?
The tale opens at Halloween. Natalie is living alone with her truculent, nine year old daughter, Rose; her husband is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Rose has been stroppy since he left, disturbing Natalie’s sleep to complain of thirst and copying her mother’s habit of copious swearing. As they prepare to go out Trick or Treating, Rose collapses onto the kitchen floor. She is rushed to hospital where she is diagnosed with diabetes.
As Natalie and Rose struggle to come to terms with a lifetime of regular blood tests and injections a shadowy figure enters their lives. The reader may decide if he is a ghost or a dream but Colin’s presence helps our protagonists through these difficult days. They settle into a routine punctured by numerous battles of will. Natalie persists in babying her daughter who fights through her mother’s preconceptions, desperate to be heard as an individual. What holds them together is a story they start to share woven from imagination, memories and family memorobilia found languishing in a shed where Rose flees for sanctuary.
The story is that of Colin, Natalie’s long dead Granddad. At the end of the Second World War, his ship was torpedoed and he was stranded in a lifeboat for fifty days. Natalie recreates his ordeal from his diary and newspaper cuttings. Her narrative is told in parallel with the present day tale.
Natalie’s personal story is the one that resonated. It was her neediness and self absorption that nearly turned me away, yet as she came to understand how she was behaving the harshness with which she judged herself struck a chord. Mothers are so used to society blaming them for their children’s faults while their children heap blame on them for all their woes. It is little wonder that mothers also berate themselves.
Natalie changes as the story progresses. She recognises that she must allow Rose to move on with her life and that, even though Rose is the centre of Natalie’s life, Natalie is not at the centre of Rose’s. Natalie stops using childish words in her stories, stops trying to protect Rose from every harsh reality of life. She still makes promises that she cannot guarantee to keep and says ‘We’ll see’ rather than ‘No’, but she is starting to find honesty, and to this Rose responds.
Natalie and Rose use Colin’s diary in the same way believers use a bible, dipping in for inspiration and finding text they can interpret as messages to help them through their days. Natalie rebuffs the kindness offered by a neighbour whose efforts are described as ‘bothering them’; she turns away offers of assistance from family and friends; perhaps she conjures up a supernatural presence as the only kind of help she can accept as it will never expect her to reciprocate.
I found it hard to like Natalie until well into the book when I realised that the author was portraying her in the harshest of lights. Allowances were made for Rose’s bad behaviour, and for Colin’s various acts of desperation, but no slack was offered for Natalie’s flaws. I empathised with her loneliness and a mother’s tendency to self-flagellate.
This is a story woven from the author’s personal experience and is one of hope despite devastating challenges. It matters little if Colin actually appeared to them; his story inspired and it is that which was needed at such a difficult time.
The initial build up set a scene necessary for understanding; when finished a powerful story lingers. The writing shifted my perception as the story progressed, reminding me how easy it is to jump to judgement rather than taking the time to learn why others behave as they do. Sometimes it is necessary to look through a different lens to enable us to deal with ourselves and with those who rely on us to accept and understand. One must be brave to grant loved ones their freedom.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.