Book review: Paula Daly’s ‘Just what kind of mother are you?’

16 Apr

pauladalybookjacket250Reading’s my ultimate relaxation but I find that I like distinctly different styles of book depending on what else is going on around me. When I’m working, and focused, I like my reading to challenge me, to give me something to get my teeth into and to throw up knotty problems or moral conundrums to debate. But when I’m on holiday, or having any other break from work, I like my reading to flow around me like a stream flows round a rock, easily and without obstruction.

So I was very excited to have the chance from the very good people at Mumsnet to review Paula Daly’s ‘What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway?’. What a superb plot premise. Just reading the synopsis sent a chill down my spine, and the way a normal, could-be-any-of-us, too-much-going-on-struggling-through working parent’s day moved inexorably towards disaster was carefully planned and very well written. As a concept, the storyline pulled at what is surely one of every mother’s deepest fear: that one day all those plates you’re juggling will come crashing down, and the problem is, when you’re a parent, there aren’t any plates you can afford to drop… Being responsible for the loss of someone else’s child, the mix of relief, horror, guilt for the relief, guilt for the action… These emotions are well expressed in the opening pages and Daly draws a fine line between sympathy for and frustration with Lisa, allowing us to feel both and revel in their contrasting and contradictory natures. This is very clever, and the character of Lisa was, for me, the most well-drawn in the novel by a country mile. She felt like a real person, we were right inside her head and it was – at times uncomfortably – easy to identify with her.
By contrast, I felt the characterisation of some of the other players in the drama was sketchy and relatively unformed. It never became clear to me if this was because we were seeing them through Lisa’s eyes – and this could indeed be so, since the policewoman, DC Joanne Aspinall, the only other character whose perspective we truly see events from, although in the third not the first person, is another nicely-constructed individual who we feel we get to know to an extent throughout the course of the novel.

The storyline alone was more than sufficient to keep me reading – this book is a proper page-turner, particularly as the main plot runs in parallel with an additional storyline, cleverly interwoven and leading the reader on their own investigation into Lucinda’s disappearance – about horrific abuse of other young teenage girls, and a shadowy, clearly psychotic criminal – you really want to know what happens next and how the plots together will unfold. I’m not open to spoiler alerts here so won’t write more about the way the storylines do work together; suffice to say this is one of the best elements of the book, with Daly tightly controlling the reader’s emotions and rate of discovery.
With a storyline as compelling as this, perhaps it might have proved frustrating if there had been plot breaks for description – but it’s hard to tell, since scene-setting, mood-engendering description within the book was pretty sparse. And with the novel set in the Lake District, I can’t help feeling that despite the pace the novel sets itself, this relative lack of a sense of place is something of a shame. The contrast between the picture-postcard Lake scenery and the horror of a missing child within that vast expanse of wilderness could have added to the tension and created a greater atmosphere of fear and foreboding, which instead to be maintained relied on main character Lisa’s regular emotion-focused updates, referring either to her state of mind or to that of Kate, the missing girl’s mother; or evident within DC Aspinall’s increasingly negative musings on the potential outcome of the case as time passed and Lucinda remained absent.

Through this lack of description, at times the novel reads like a TV script, a clear play to TV drama where the scene-setting is done effectively by what’s filmed and what the viewer sees. No description necessary, as it’ll be added in when the drama’s brought to life. The characterisation of DC Aspinall adds to this sensation. While I enjoyed reading about her and was interested in her and sympathetic towards her, the character was created through small clues, and as a result only partially built, which for me led to an underlying sense that this holding-back was intentional because she would be further developed in subsequent novels within a ‘DC Aspinall’ series. This isn’t a bad thing, but it meant that she remained something of an enigma throughout, with no resolution to one of the ongoing sub-plots, the difficult decision she is in the process of making regarding her breast reduction and the intense discomfort and embarrassment that the current size of her breasts causes her. I was sympathetic towards her; with a sense of admiration that she did such a difficult and active job with this level of physical difficulty, and couldn’t help feeling that in Daly’s mind, there’s more to come regarding this – it’s only the beginning. I hope I’m right on this…
At the end of the day, however, this was a book which had me gripped from the start and kept me gripped right through to the abrupt, startling and very well thought-through ending – an ending that left me with a real sense that Daly has an ongoing plan for these characters, more for them to deliver.
To go back to my image of reading at the start of this review, ‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You?’ is a straightforward holiday read, an unchallenging page turner with a story that flows uninterrupted around the reader and works very well taken as just that – a cracking good read. I would definitely recommend it, especially for summer holiday chill-out reading.

No choice but long hours of childcare

16 Apr

Sun up to sun downAnother day, another study designed, it seems, to pile more guilt and ‘grass is greener’ urges onto working parents.

This Australian study says that children in pre-school daycare for long periods of time may fall behind educationally. The definition of ‘long periods of time’ is 21 hours a week, or more.

Like many working parents, M and I had absolutely no choice. On average, L1 was in pre-school nursery from 7.20am to 6.50pm four days a week, and sometimes five. I know how long that is in total because when we were planning what to do when I went back to work after mat leave I worked it out and sat down and cried.

Easy, perhaps, to blame this time in nursery on our decision to move just outside London zone 6 while working in Central London. This difficult call was made so we could be closer to my family, because we were lucky enough that our unavoidable absence during the working week could be mitigated to an extent by their proximity; and so we could live in a small community and hopefully make close connections which enabled our children – or child, since at the time it was only L1 – to have an extended network within that community to feel part of even though we weren’t around as much as we would have liked. But no, this distance is not to blame: when we lived in Zone 3, on the efficient and frequent (not being ironic here) Victoria line, we only ‘gained’ 45 minutes a day additional time with L1, most of which was eaten up by the drive between nursery and home, which was significantly longer than the one we had when we moved to Kent.

What was to blame was the absolute requirement, no, necessity, for us both to work full-time, and to work full-time in Central London because of the industries and career paths in which we had become entrenched. Retrain? Without a cushion of savings (and where, really, would they come from?) and without either education or personal skills for other career paths, this was neither straightforward nor practical. I know this since I investigated retraining as virtually anything that I thought I might have a chance at which could provide an improved amount of time with my girl, but found that no way would I be capable, would I be happy, or would anyone have me doing it - any combination of the list. And at the end of the day, since I had to earn, I needed to work in a field where I was most likely to be employed. So standard working hours it was.

I return, therefore, to one of my favoured themes. If this study is right – and I wouldn’t know, the Ls are who they are having had the amount of (excellent, high quality) childcare they’ve had, I can’t tell from my own statistically insignificant sample if they’re more or less able and achieving at school than they would have been had they been at home more – because they weren’t – then the only way to deal with it is going to be a sea change in attitudes towards and the feasibility of flexible working. And support will be needed for employers as well as employees in order for this to become a reality. Having sat in duality as an employer and an employee I know full well that businesses will need help to thrive in a new way of working just as much as employees will.

And the question, will it ever happen? I don’t think I want to tackle that, as I’m deeply cynical about whether those ‘in charge’ care enough about this issue to ensure it does. But my final thought is this. At the same time that this news was released I saw a Tweet saying that Finland tops global education tables and children start school way later than ours and go for shorter days. Having just returned from Helsinki I would argue that this isn’t just because of the education itself but is due to a variety of ‘quality of life’ factors. It isn’t education, daycare, or any of that which we need to address in a vacuum, its surely the importance those in charge of our country place on how we nurture the next generation that has to change.

Holiday – all that I can’t leave behind

14 Apr

After this recent trip to Finland it has come to my attention that I don’t so much self-cater as over-cater. I may be able to cast off the cares of everyday life (well, it’s poetic, that’s a start), but it’s clear I can’t shrug off the bulk-buy mentality even if we’re only away for four days and the apartment provides a ‘starter pack’ of the basics.

TOO MUCHThis has never been so clear as yesterday morning. Early, so early, if the early bird catches the worm our plane was a truly tasty morsel indeed, I swung the suitcase onto the self-check carousel only to be alerted to the fact it was 2kg over the allowed weight when in principle we were only returning with what we’d taken (and a jumper from H&M which was only 3 Euros but that couldn’t contribute much, now could it), and it had been perfectly fine on the outbound leg.

Dividing and conquering was the order of the day, so the other bag was opened to redistribute contents of the excessive one. It then became clear where the problem primarily lay. The dishwasher tablets purchased in bulk for a four-day Finnish sojourn ‘because they were the cheapest per-unit option’, therefore mostly unused, lay accusingly on top of the DVD box set of The Pacific. Nestled next to it was a tube of clingfilm, because it was ‘better than the Value stuff from Tesco so it has to come home’. And, while not contributing to weight, but definitely contributing to bulk within the bag, a just-opened eight-roll pack of toilet paper, with only the one missing, because ‘what’s the point of buying a four-pack when someone might get a cold or have a stomach ‘issue”.

As a result I flew home with hand luggage  of a pack of dishwasher tablets and some bog roll, which is distinctly less rock n’ roll than an eye mask and some facial moisturising spritzer, and a copy of Take A Break (the latter ok may not be rock n’ roll, but its fun, and flight-appropriate). Actually I have only ever carried one of those three items in my carry-on baggage, but I like to rewrite history where my single-days travelling is concerned.

On a comedown

10 Mar

And it's all gone out...When I was little we used to sing a song called ‘After the Ball was Over’, in which the protagonist slowly divested herself of body parts (in a humorous way, I hasten to add, not a grisly one) in order to get to bed. When I was small, I thought this song hilarious. When I hit my teens (refusing all attempts made by my parents to get me to sing it still) I viewed it as a metaphor of how gutted I was when the parties were over. Now, adult, I see it as a daft song from which absolutely no appropriate analogies can be drawn, but for my poor little girl, after the excitement of the past weekend I think it’s pretty much spot-on.

It’s tough not to be centre of attention any more (and even tougher, I would imagine, when your mother’s birthday follows hot on the heels – actually, scrap that, snapping at the heels more like, of yours!), and very tough to return to reality. I feel for her, painfully, and have to balance that with the necessary exhortation that she ‘calm down’ and try not to take it so much to heart. I’d never tell her to feel less deeply; and only growing up teaches you how to feel deeply and manage the after effects. Little girl, she has a way to go til then. And really, do I ever manage it, even now? Or am I, like all adults, just now better at emotional dissembling? Probably.

I remember the feeling so well from my own later childhood: anticipation building to the explosion of the event; then the next morning, when the sun and I were rising as normal to continue a normal day, the knot of suppressed tears sitting just beneath the hollow of my throat for hours; and the desperate wish to turn back time.

A decade with my daughter

6 Mar

My girlHow do I write about love? The start of my greatest love coincided precisely with the first time I knew exactly what fear is. And it didn’t start with anything I could previously classify as ‘love’. So to write about this love, I think I have to go back and look at its beginning.

We weren’t well, my girl and I, when she first arrived. I strode in to deliver her confident that I would be viewing dawn the next day as a mother; and crept out ten days later ultimately triumphant but nonetheless for a while diminished somehow, shrunken by circumstances and an experience that left a mark so deep-rooted it took nearly five years to vocalise and a further five – give or take – to be able to write it down. I walked into hospital away from one side of my life and walked out through the same door into the other, where I have been ever since.

Love didn’t start in the way I expected either. When she first arrived, it wasn’t love, it was instinct. She was mine to protect and I would have ripped out the eyes of anyone who tried to come between us (I still would), but I didn’t look at her and feel my heart swell. More, I looked at her and my heart and whole being contracted in, clenched and shrinking around the hard solid immovable nut of my responsibility for her and the drive that she was mine to protect. I remember in hospital fading fast with sheer exhaustion maybe a week after she was born and thinking they have to take her from me for the night because I have to sleep, nothing else is open to me. And they saw that in me, and they did take her, and I did sleep, and I woke four hours later in the quiet dim-light hospital dusk and she was still taken and the wrongness of it propelled me out of bed to the nurses’ station ‘Where is my daughter?’ and she was there, of course, they were enjoying her and giving me a break, but that feeling, that urgent need to have her close, it still wasn’t love, as I previously knew it.

That kind of love, that crept up on me stealthily, six or so weeks later, after days and nights of confusion and uncertainty and not being able to work it out, constant fog of fear punched through with vibrant bright sparks of joy. We were quiet and calm, in the garden outside. It was the end of April and the sun was shining, the Choicia filled the air with a scent of heady positivity and all the leaves were green. It was a good time, and a right time, to be a growing baby and the time I started to feel my own rejuvenation. We looked at each other, my girl and I, as she kicked her legs on the grass, and I knew then that regardless of all the rest, it really would be alright. And I think first of all that emotion wasn’t love, it was relief; but right then, they felt very similar. I could see the path, the forwards direction, and there we were, finally on it.

My girl, my life, my best decade; the benchmark – along with her brother – against which all the decisions I make are measured; my ultimate impact statement, my central question – ‘if I do this, what will happen for her?’. Before she was born, life was a wonderful adventure, because I didn’t have life with her to measure it against. Before her wasn’t lacking, but with her a piece I had no idea was missing suddenly fell into place. This is my love letter, it’s warts and all. When all’s said and done, she’s not joined to me anymore, my little miracle, that ended a whole decade ago. It is the fact of her independent being, in body, thought, word and deed; that is the most miraculous thing of all. Happy 10th birthday, my daughter.

The washing line – an analogy for long-term relationships, shamelessly in time for Valentines Day

11 Feb

A family of fourI was at a brilliant wedding this weekend just gone. It was really touching to be part of such a joyful celebration, and it got me thinking about marriage; and not just marriage, but any long-term committed partnership between two people, whatever the nature of the vows or the spectacle, or otherwise, surrounding their taking.

So I spent a lot of time yesterday and this morning trying to figure out the best analogy for working through life together, and making it work. Now I’m a renowned old romantic – honest guvnor – so naturally the idyllic concept upon which I lit to describe my views on long-term commitment and what I believe it takes to work out is… a washing line.

Yup, I honestly think that alongside the rose, the diamond and the heart, the washing line deserves to feature as one of the most romantic symbols of long-term togetherness.

A fair enough question is ‘why’, and I suspect it will be the question posed to me by my own partner in washing line display when he’s read this. So here goes.

Committing to someone and navigating a long term partnership is like being two shirts hanging on the same washing line. The washing line is the marriage. The shirts are the people. This took me ages. They hang through harsh winds, shiver in snow and bask in the sun, together, on the same line (yes, I have anthropomorphised the shirts; yes, I am assuming this is the washing line of someone like me, who prioritises – wrongly – other things when the washing’s out and it pours with rain. But if neither of these things take place, the analogy fails. So bear with).

Sometimes, during the harsh winds or the snow one sleeve may become detached from the line. The peg of connection, you see, comes loose. One shirt is adrift from the line of the commitment. Then it’s a question of two things: how tightly the other peg holds; or (and I accept the analogy falls slightly at this point, but it is rough-hewn) the shirt-owner (or shirt-carer) comes out and reaffixes the peg to the line, so the shirts hang tight again. Stretching it (analogy, not washing line), one could say – and rest assured, I will – that the shirt-owner /carer is here an embodiment of the determination to sort things out, when things have gone wrong.

I haven’t gone much further than that on the washing line idea. I don’t necessarily know if I can, but as a concept, it does work for me. Whether or not it works for my other half, I’ll soon find out, but to give him his due, he does tend to take responsibility for the washing in our household…

Same again

4 Feb

My new obsessionA whole month of 2014 has passed and I still haven’t had a drink since Christmas. Dry January finished on Friday, and at midnight I was having a very interesting & involved discussion with members of Ladies Book Club, an open bottle of Cava on the sideboard. So I could, feasibly and honestly, have poured a glass. So why not?

I don’t know.

Partly, I actually didn’t fancy it (Koppaberg alcohol-free cider is proving a more than adequate substitute, with the ‘bite’ of real booze in place just minus the effects of the real thing); partly because it’s starting to feel more of a personal challenge-yourself task – not ‘how low can you go’ but ‘how long can you go’; and partly because not having anything is proving to be the easiest way to prevent that ‘have another glass should-i-shouldn’t-i’ debate that assails me whenever I’m having a cheeky beverage.

My caffeine consumption has shot up and my chocolate consumption even more so. This will probably have to be addressed in the near future, but for now I’m taking all the comfort substances I can get (the theory being, without the booze calories there’s room for a few more!).

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