Book Review: Hard Pushed

Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story, by Leah Hazard, provides a timely reminder of how valuable the NHS is, and of the appalling demands currently being made of front-line staff. The author is a working midwife and shares stories of cases she has dealt with, and the conflicts regularly faced due to the spectre of rules and a lack of resources. It is not, however, polemic. Written with grace and generosity, this candid memoir presents the business of birth with clear-eyed understanding of expectations and reality. There may be a great many bodily fluids to contend with but bringing a baby into the world remains an emotional event.

The births described are those that were memorable, mostly due to complications, many unforeseen. These include: the young mother who is still a child herself; the woman who became pregnant thanks to IVF and whose partner now has cancer; the rape victim; the prospective mother suffering a serious illness. Between each case study are notes in which the author muses on such subjects as: thwarted assumptions; being human; the many challenges of the job. She has to deal courteously with colleagues who have contentious opinions. When mistakes are made they can have far reaching consequences.

The author writes of a new mother whose own mother undermines her confidence with well-meaning suggestions, and how a midwife must support but never interfere. She writes of: birth plans, birthing pools, FGM and death. She describes the mind-numbing exhaustion faced by staff working lengthy shifts in over-crowded wards where medical emergencies leave labouring women unattended. The professional script she must follow is designed to both minimise patient concern and protect the midwife.

The intense and unpredictable daily demands lead to regular burn-outs, something to which the author is not immune. The job takes a physical and mental toll that can be a challenge to sustain.

This is a fluently structured and fascinating account of a job that, even as a mother of three, I had not fully appreciated. I feel angry on behalf of these hard working professionals for the way our healthcare system is being managed and funded.

Yet the warmth and compassion with which this book is written provides a beguiling and entertaining read. The balance achieved is impressive – recommended for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Educated

I am generally wary of manuscripts bought by a big publisher for a vast sum of money. To recoup the investment there will likely be a wide ranging publicity campaign to ensure the book crosses as many reader’s radars as possible. I question if I am hearing about it because it is well written and worth reading or because it has been cleverly promoted. Whilst recognising that the publisher would not have made the purchase had they not believed in its potential commercial success, I can be a tad cynical about literary worth.

With Educated I was also wary of it being a memoir, not a genre I am drawn to, having been disappointed by the inventions and exaggerations that came to light after publication of such titles as A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. Veracity matters if the reader is being asked to accept the words as fact, a work of non fiction, if they are to engage with the author having experienced the story being shared.

What drew me to Educated were the questions the author was asking about how to define oneself having escaped from a family whose existence revolved around a religious belief. As I know from my upbringing in Troubled Belfast, the complex emotions of family loyalty and love are severely tested when measured against the damaging indoctrination of a trusting child. Added to this, the religion in Educated is Mormonism whose tenets, as I understand them, appear at odds with the psychological well-being of, particularly, women. The author’s father was also an end of the world survivalist. I was sufficiently intrigued.

The story is told in three parts: childhood; Tara’s first years away from the family home at the largely Mormon, Brigham Young University; her continuing education at Cambridge in England and, briefly, Harvard. Throughout she is trying to find a way to live within the confines of her family’s blinkered faith whilst discovering that there are other, more rational, ways of thinking.

The first section takes up about half the book. Tara was raised in Idaho, on land owned by her wider family, many of whom lived nearby. Her father earned his money from selling scrap metal and building barns. Her mother added to the family coffers by selling herbal medicines and practising as an unlicensed midwife. Father did not trust the government and believed that the end of the world was imminent. He stockpiled food, fuel and weapons, did not register his younger children’s births and kept them from attending school. The seven siblings were expected to help out at home, including in the scrapyard where many accidents occurred. Even the worst injuries were treated by Mother. Modern medicine was regarded as poison. If God wanted people to live they would be cured with faith, salves and tinctures.

By the time Tara reached puberty one of her brothers had become unbalanced – possibly due to brain damage following one of the many accidents the children suffered, or perhaps inherited mental instability – and viciously attacked her each time he doubted her purity, such as if she talked to a boy. To survive she learned to switch off from the emotional and physical pain inflicted, exacerbated by the knowledge that her parents would not accept that their son was wreaking such damage. By this time several of her older siblings had got away, including one to college despite the limitations of being largely self-taught. He encouraged Tara to follow the same course.

The second section details the years the author spent at BYU where she began to learn of the world history her family had ignored or skewed to support their prejudices. Each time she returned to their home she was put under pressure to conform. A good Mormon woman will marry, submit to her husband and bear his children. A university degree is not required for such a future.

Despite her lack of formal education, Tara wins a scholarship to study at Cambridge, which is covered in the final section of the book. It is here that she begins to truly find herself beneath the many layers of guilt and self-blame that her family inflicted throughout her formative years. Still though she hopes to reconcile the dual aspects of her life. The mental toll this takes proves devastating.

Up until this point the writing is fluent and compelling. Although a memoir it reads as a story, a page turner that is effortlessly engaging. The final few chapters feel more typically memoir, with a slower pace and repeated reflections. A conclusion was required and is achieved but left me wondering how much of Tara’s story was left untold.

Occasionally the narrative points to notes that draw attention to discrepancies in Tara’s memories compared to those of other family members. When the contents of emails are shared it is made clear that these have been paraphrased. I ponder how much has been edited to avoid legal repercussions. Names have been changed but such a closed community will recognise themselves within this self limiting world, presented through a troubled lens.

Tara’s achievements are admirable and her story is well written and worth reading. I remain aware that, as with any personal memories, their curation will be coloured by the circumstances in which they are shared.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson.

 

Book Review: The Weight of Blood

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

weight of blood

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh, was a pleasure to read from start to finish. This is not to say that the subject matter was pleasurable. Many of the plot lines dealt with situations that, although all may be aware happen, are easier to ignore. It was a small town society’s willingness to do this that was explored in excoriating detail.

The story is told over two time periods, with each chapter progressing through a different character’s perspective until the tales merge for the satisfying, if grim, denouement. Events kick off when a stranger arrives in a remote town that copes with transient tourists but will not welcome incomers who wish to stay. This antipathy enables the grisly events that unfold, and it soon becomes clear that protecting established families counts more than obeying the law.

The book lays bare the damage that can be caused when human weaknesses are normalised, accepted or simply overlooked for the sake of maintaining the status quo. With limited expectations for their future, the residents see as inevitable that men will act as they wish, and that it is easier to look the other way. When accidents happen they are cleaned up, gossiped over but rarely investigated. Truth is not something that is to be faced if it will cause trouble for those who must continue to live alongside the perpetrators. Asking too many questions is discouraged for fear of the fallout.

Into this web emerges a young girl, born and raised in the heart of the town, who has lost her friend and her mother in circumstances that nobody seems willing to discuss or explore. Determined to uncover what has happened, she enlists the help of a friend, and together they start to unravel a generation of secrets and unacknowledged truths.

From the first chapter I was hooked. The pace of the novel was perfect, the unfolding tale never ceasing to engage. Every word earned its place, moving the plot along effortlessly. Such seamless writing demonstrates the skill of the author, keeping this reader engrossed for the entire three hundred pages.

The tale was compelling and thought provoking, leaving me questioning how far I would go to help a stranger when rocking the boat could bring down an accepted way of life. It got under my skin and I am glad that it did.

This is quality writing, but more than that, it is story telling at its best.

My copy of this book was supplied gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson, via My Independent Bookshop rewards.