Book review: ‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins. Part One.

The Lost Child’ by Anne Atkins is one of many (many, many, many…) books that I picked up who-remembers-where because it was on sale and looked potentially interesting, and then didn’t get around to reading for the next I-don’t-know-how-many years. When I did eventually check it out (by which I mean ‘skipped to the last few chapters to see whether it was worth reading the rest of it or whether it should go straight on the charity shop pile’) I discovered that it was a novel written to convey an anti-abortion message. That, of course, made me immediately interested in critiquing it, which… might not have been the most sensible decision, since it led me down a rabbit hole of writing increasingly detailed notes about a book which has in fact been out of print for so long that nobody cares any more, most of which notes have ended up being about aspects of the book that aren’t even directly related to the pro-life arguments. So, yes, I question my life choices.

However, for what it is worth, I have now written a long, detailed, multi-part review which I plan to put up over the next couple of weeks. Content warnings: some moralising about sex, one use of an ablist term.


Atkins, who was apparently quite well known as a Christian writer and speaker in the ’80s, tells us in the preface that she came up with the idea for the novel after hearing about a family who collectively voted on what the mother’s decision about her unwanted pregnancy should be. Apparently everyone voted for abortion except for the youngest child, who firmly dissented. Atkins’ attempts to find out more details were unsuccessful, so we don’t know why the child disagreed, how she reacted to the vote going against her, why on earth this decision was being put up for a vote in the first place, or whether the story was even true (it probably is, but it doesn’t strike me as impossible that the speaker from whom Atkins heard it could have invented it as a condemnation of Middle-Class Liberal Families These Days). However, it inspired her to write a story about such a vote happening and about the aftermath.

Plot summary

The story is written from the perspective of the person who, as a child, dissented in the family vote. Her name is Cassandra (shortened to Caz), which is part of a heavy overall emphasis on Greek mythology/symbolism; Atkins is presenting her as the person who speaks truth even when no-one else around her believes her.

The book consists of three alternating strands, of which the first is the frame story and the second and third form a book-within-a-book which Caz is writing over the course of the story:

  1. The adult Caz’s diary (plus a few letters from/to Caz)
  2. The story of the family vote and abortion as seen through her eyes as a child
  3. Her story of growing up with her younger sister Poppy.

The reveal at the end of Caz’s book-within-a-book is that Poppy is actually a creation of Caz’s imagination; the sister she imagined she would have had, had her mother continued the pregnancy. Following this, we get further entries from Caz’s diary describing her horrified reaction to finding out that her lover once gave permission for his newborn child to be taken off life support. The ending of the book overall is rather vague but positive, implying that Caz eventually got over this reaction and decided to stay with him.

While I’ve been unable to resist going into a lot of detail in this review, I have at least succeeded in keeping to a shorter format than my more usual chapter-by-chapter breakdown; what I’ve done is to do a post for each strand of the story as described above. I left the conclusion of the book-within-a-book to its own post, and likewise the last part of the frame story after the BWAB finishes. So, five posts altogether. As I’ve been working on them all concurrently, I’m hoping to be able to post them over a shorter time frame than I usually manage with book reviews, so look out for them over the next week or two.

(AMENDED: Part 3 became so long that I’ve split this into two posts. So, two posts discussing the part of the story in which Caz writes about her supposed life with Poppy, and six posts altogether.)


The frame story

Diary format is hard to write well, because it’s difficult to convey all the necessary information in a readable way while still coming across like something that sounds plausibly like someone’s diary. Authors doing this often fall into the trap of writing the way they would for any other first-person narrative, which doesn’t sound quite right for a diary. This is what Atkins has done, and it has the unfortunate effect of making Caz sound rather pompous. That impression isn’t helped by Atkins’ strong predilection for throwing in quotations from obscure classical literature, or by her moralising with Caz as her mouthpiece.

There is a fairly slow start in which Caz goes into quite lengthy detail about a nightmare she had the night before, about her wanders around London the day before, and about finding the right stuff to make coffee when she’s just moved house and everything is still packed. In amongst all this, we learn that she is steeling herself to write a book that her publishers have already accepted for a publication date four months hence, which does not fit with what I’ve read about typical writing-to-publication timelines, but I suppose might have been realistic at the time (1994) that this book was written? I’m dubious, but don’t know enough to rule that out. Either way, it sounds like an incredibly tight schedule in terms of getting the book written in time to get to the publishers. However, Caz never seems bothered by that aspect at any point; what’s worrying her is the prospect of revisiting the story at all. Despite this, she concludes that she must

…tell it, remember it, write my book, so that all the world knows what happened. And then say goodbye, forever, to the dearest friend I ever had.

Let’s remember here that, while it’s left vague at the time, we will eventually find out that the ‘it’ she is planning to tell is her account of her reaction to her mother’s abortion. We aren’t told at any point how her mother feels about having such a personal episode made public. Caz is making her mother’s abortion all about herself.

We also get an insight that’s retrospectively poignant once we know Poppy is imaginary:

Because of Poppy, I never had the companions I would have wanted otherwise: a kitten, a dog. I loved animals but Poppy took their place, and I simply played with her instead.

Which I now believe, looking back on it, was what happened with boyfriends I tried to have. Trouble was, however much I liked them, however much I fancied them even, most important of all however good they were to me as friends, they could never compete with Poppy. I might talk to them, but I could never say as much as I could say to her. I might be open with them, but they never understood me as well as she did. Any love affair was doomed to failure; although to be honest I didn’t try very hard. I already had the best friend I could want. [p 17]

I think Atkins was probably aiming for ‘See how damaged Caz is by her mother’s abortion’, but the actual effect is to paint Caz as someone who has idolised her imaginary relationship with her imaginary sister to the point where it prevents her from forming real relationships. She can’t deal with the normal flaws of real people.

However, Atkins wants us to see Caz finally moving on with her life now that she’s bringing her family’s Deep Dark Secret out into the open, so, a couple of pages later, her next-door neighbour Will comes round to welcome her to the area and Caz describes this in a way that I expect Atkins at least meant to start out sounding like casual diary-writing rather than giant Here Be Love Interest signs. Mentionitis ensues, both in the diary and, apparently, in Caz’s life, since we also get reports of her having ‘so who’s this person you’re falling in love with?’/’DON’T BE SILLY, OF COURSE I AM NOT FALLING IN LOVE’ type conversations. Of course, the two of them do shortly end up in love and major NRE ensues. Caz, who previously moralised about someone she passed in the street who had the temerity to look bored while resting her hand on her partner’s bottom (which was apparently a shocking sight which indicated that the entire younger generation don’t take sex seriously enough, and, no, I am not exaggerating; that was actually Atkins’ message), now rhapsodises about how she isn’t just having sex, she is Making Love, which is soooo much superior.

Despite her whirlwind romance and massively detailed diary-writing, Caz never seems to feel any kind of time pressure over her incredibly tight book deadline. Once she’s overcome the psychological hurdle of getting started, we get no indication at all that she’s having any concern over getting the book done in time. No stressed-out calendar checking, no late night or all-night sessions, not even a mention of it being an issue on her mind. There’s such a thing as straining the willing suspension of disbelief too far, Atkins.

Will tells Caz about the breakdown of his first marriage. His first wife contracted severe pneumonia late in her first pregnancy, and was rushed into hospital unconscious. The doctors did an emergency Caesarian ‘of course’ (from the extremely little that I know about the subject of dealing with critical illness in late pregnancy I don’t think it is an ‘of course’ at all, but he’s a non-medical person describing a medical event so some inaccuracy is reasonable here) and kept the baby alive briefly, but…

‘…the next day, when Helena was still unconscious, they came and told me that in their medical opinion they considered the foetus “non-viable”.’


‘Will? […] She wasn’t a foetus. She was a baby girl.’

I get that this is Atkins’ attempt at a Don’t Say Foetus, It’s A Baby message. However, regardless of what you do or don’t think about the use of ‘foetus’ as a term prior to birth, it’s never used to refer to a baby after birth, so this bit just sounded rather silly.

Anyway, Will says that because the baby died while Helena was still unconscious she never got to see it (as a doctor, I have to point out that that last would not have been the case; in such a situation the mother is given the chance to hold the baby after death to say goodbye if she wishes, and, yes, this was also true back when Atkins was writing) and that she blamed Will because he ‘shouldn’t have believed the doctors, that I should have questioned everything they said’ and this led to the breakup of their marriage. (We find out in the last part of the book that that wasn’t the full story, but the above is the version we get in this bit.)

They visit Caz’s parents. Caz’s father drinks excessively and her mother can’t go out due to mental health reasons. The implication is clearly meant to be that all of this is a reaction to the abortion. Will spots Caz’s massive grudge against them (as well as, we can fairly assume, picking up on other clues in things she says), and eventually asks her

‘[…]What happened when you were five, and what happened to your sister? […] I know something’s upsetting you, and I want to know what it is. And I know it’s to do with your book, but so far you haven’t told me anything.’

My initial read of this was that Caz had been abandoning her decision to put her imaginary sister behind her to the extent of still talking to Will about her ‘sister’ as though she were real, which would have been bizarre behaviour to a mind-boggling degree. However, we do learn later in the book that Caz has made her name writing and illustrating children’s books but has published them with Poppy rather than herself listed as the artist. While that raises a number of questions on which I will indeed have things to say when we get to that bit, it does at least give us a plausible alternative explanation here; my headcanon is now that Will, on finding out that she’s that Cassandra Whatever, has been asking her friendly questions about her sister and their work together and that Caz has been evading the questions because she can’t figure out how to admit to him what she’s been doing. I doubt Atkins actually thought this through to anything like that extent, but at least it’s plausible as a Watsonian explanation.

Anyway, Caz tells him, though not us, the truth. To put this into context, at this point in the book we’re far enough into the interspersed book-within-a-book to know about the abortion, but haven’t officially been told that ‘Poppy’ is imaginary; the other part of the book-within-a-book, in which Caz writes about her imaginary life with her sister as though it were real, is still ongoing and we haven’t yet got to the Big Reveal. (I assume a lot of readers would have deduced it by that point, but since I skipped ahead to read the ending first I don’t know whether I would have been one of them or not.) However, Atkins apparently wants to stretch the reveal out as long as possible, so this is how the next bit is phrased:

And I did. I told him everything I could remember, just as I’ve told the book everything I can remember, all through that summer of 1990. And then I told him everything after that, everything about Poppy, from my memory of her birth right up until this year, till I moved out of Perrymead Street and said goodbye to her, I believe for ever.

Which is an extraordinary amount of detail to go into about your imaginary friend from whom you’re supposedly moving on; if I were Will, I’d be having some concerns about Caz’s stability at this point. If Will does feel that way, he gives no indication of it. However, to Caz’s outrage, he does sympathise with her parents as well as with her, which she’s not happy about at all:

‘But you can’t understand it from both points of view,’ I said. ‘You can’t! You can’t! If you do that, you’re saying that there’s no absolutes, and that nothing’s right or wrong.’

Caz literally does not understand the concept that someone can legitimately sympathise with a different viewpoint while still disagreeing with it. Or, for that matter, that disagreeing with her particular morality on one point is not the same as saying that ‘nothing’s right or wrong’. And Will does not call her out on this; there’s no indication in the text that there are any problems with this attitude. That’s a damning window into the author’s worldview.

Will, by the way, apparently also sees no reason why Caz should check with her mother before publicising her mother’s personal story; when Caz asks whether she should cancel her book, his reply is

‘No,’ he said. ‘Because I think your parents understand much better than you think. And probably rather better than you understand them. I think you should change the names. And I think you should let them read it before it comes out. And I think you should start talking to them. If you feel angry with people you love, you don’t write them off: you tell them, idiot.’

So at least there’s some constructive advice in there, but unfortunately it doesn’t include the advice that her mother might want to have the final say in whether a personal and painful episode in her own life is made public in this way.

(Also: I know, I know, ablist term. But it was the ’90s and this genuinely wouldn’t have struck Atkins as a problem, so on this one I don’t mind giving her a pass.)

Also, Caz doesn’t even take the advice. She does change the names she uses for her brothers in the book, but she doesn’t change her parents’ names, ‘because I can’t think of them as anything else’. (Since the whole point of the book-within-a-book is that it’s meant to be from a child’s perspective, she could have quite easily just omitted names altogether and have gone with ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ all the way through, but she doesn’t.) She says she’ll pick two names out of a hat when she’s finished and get the computer to do the find-and-replace, but, since the names she mentions her parents as having are the names used throughout the book-within-a-book as we read it, that doesn’t seem to have happened. She’s also used the names of the streets on which the family used to live as titles for the different sections of the book, and mentioned her parents’ professions. Also, she’s publishing the book in her own name, as a well-known author already. So, her mother is going to be very identifiable here.

She doesn’t warn her mother about this, either. In fact, when she’s asked during her visit to her parents whether her book is going to be autobiographical, she flat-out lies to them, saying it isn’t. Her mother is going to be completely blindsided by this. (We never see her mother’s reaction or how this affects her.)

Later in that same diary entry, we hear that Will has proposed to Caz and she’s accepted. The date is July 10th… no, wait a minute, not even that, because that’s the date of Caz’s entry and she’s writing about something that happened ‘last Wednesday’. Working it out from a previous diary entry that gives the day as well as the date, July 10th seems itself to have been a Wednesday, which would mean they became engaged on July 3rd. Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up is because they first met on May 1st on that year. That’s two months from their first meeting to their decision to spend their lives together.

Now, from all descriptions Will actually sounds like a decent man who treats her thoughtfully and respectfully, so at least this isn’t another toxic relationship story. But here’s your PSA for the day; however much you love someone and however good the NRE, it’s really not a good idea to make life commitments to them that quickly. There are so many possible reasons why even an apparently lovely – or genuinely lovely – person might not be the right one for you to be with long term, and this sort of timescale just doesn’t allow the chance to look out for those possible reasons.

Anyway, that diary entry is the last one from the part of the book I’m reviewing in this post; after that are the last few chapters of Caz’s book-within-a-book which I’ll discuss in their respective posts, and then the final section of the diary which I’ll discuss in the fifth post. Next post up will be the review of the part of Caz’s book-within-a-book which tells the story of her mother’s abortion, including the family vote. As usual, I will link subsequent posts at the bottom of this one.

Further posts

Part Two: The story of the abortion

Part Three: Caz’s story of growing up with ‘Poppy’.

Part Four: The rest of the Caz/Poppy story

Part Five: The wrap-up of Caz’s book-within-a-book

Part Six: The last few chapters of the book overall, complete with last-minute hypocritical twist.



  1. Katydid says

    At least in the USA, the “pro-lie” (sic) movement will lie about anything and everything.

    I find it implausible in the extreme that any family putting a mother’s possible abortion up for a family vote—if it actually did happen that way, the family is psychologically very damaged.

    I also find it implausible that a unconscious woman with severe pneumonia was put under sedation for a c-section, since sedation requires close attention to oxygenation–something someone with severe pneumonia would struggle with even without sedation.

  2. says

    …but the actual effect is to paint Caz as someone who has idolised her imaginary relationship with her imaginary sister to the point where it prevents her from forming real relationships.

    In other words, a child’s standard imaginary best friend, on steroids.

    I find it implausible in the extreme that any family putting a mother’s possible abortion up for a family vote—if it actually did happen that way, the family is psychologically very damaged.

    Yeah, it’s made-up to demonize the idea of people having power to make decisions independent of the dictates of God (or whoever wants to pretend to speak for God). Either that, or mom simply discussed the issue with the family, and everyone but the youngest child understood and agreed that she had to get an abortion; and the youngest misunderstood or misrepresented it as some sort of cold, impersonal, formal vote.

  3. Katydid says

    Agreed, Raging Bee.

    Thinking more about the “pro-lie” mindset, it probably also makes total sense to them that a grown woman’s medical decisions for her own body are not hers to make, but instead something that the entire family–even the young children!–are allowed and even encouraged to weigh in on.

  4. says

    Another possibility: After the family discussion I mentioned before, the youngest demanded a vote, maybe hoping to guilt/badger others to take her side. Or maybe mom or dad offered the vote to appease her and “settle it.” And when the vote didn’t go the youngest’s way, it felt like an even bigger, more traumatic betrayal by her entire family than it would have otherwise been — independent of the specific issue they were voting on.

    Seriously, a parental discussion and decision that upset the youngest child would be nowhere near as hard a blow as a formal explicit vote that overtly slammed her as the outlier. And the former hurt would most likely heal over time as she grew and everyone moved on; while the latter would very likely leave an indelible, unforgettable scar. Whatever it was before that vote, that family would be irretrievably fup-duck forever afterword.

  5. Dr Sarah says

    I don’t think Atkins is actually lying, but I do question the accuracy of her account here.

    Here’s what Atkins tells us about how she heard the story (the background is that she was speaking at some sort of Christian focus group):

    ‘Towards the end of the evening there were questions from the floor. In response to one of them the president, who was chairing the meeting, told the story in this book. She described the makeup of the family, the kind of open, modern, friendly people they were, and one particular decision that they faced together. That was all. Or almost all. The only other thing she added was that when they considered the decision one member of the family, the youngest, had demurred. And that one person fascinated me. I asked the president to find out everything she could about the story, and its source, and let me know as much as possible. She must have written and thanked me for my talk, but apart from that I never heard from her again.’

    So the story was already at least second-hand by the time it got to Atkins. This makes me wonder if there even was a vote, as such, or if the family just discussed what to do about a pregnancy that was going to impact all of them.

    Anyway, the next post is up now, so you can read what Atkins made of the story.

    I like the idea of ‘an imaginary best friend on steroids’. That’s it exactly. 🙂

  6. Dr Sarah says

    (sigh) …sorry, managed to flub the ‘publish date’ on the second post and didn’t realise till this morning. Now the second post is up after this one and available for reading.

  7. KG says

    I always switch Radio 4 off when Thought for the Day* comes on, but I do so with particular alacrity if Anne Atkins is announced as the speaker. She is both tedious and nasty in her bigotry.

    I hope you’ll excuse a not-entirely-serious OT excursion…

    I doubt Atkins actually thought this through to anything like that extent, but at least it’s plausible as a Watsonian explanation.

    I always enjoy TV Tropes, and the last line of the linked page struck a chord:

    Compare and contrast Literary Agent Hypothesis, which tries to have it both ways by positing that Doyle was acting as Watson’s literary agent by writing a fictionalized account of the real events that happened to Watson.

    I’ve long been both a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a proponent of this particular “Literary Agent Hypothesis”. Consider: Holmes is rational almost to a fault, while Conan Doyle was taken in not only by spiritualists, but by the Cottingley Fairies hoax! All the other works attributed to Conan Doyle have long reached a well-deserved obscurity, while the Holmes stories remain very popular, are repeatedly adapted for film and TV, and other writers (such as Anthony Horowitz) publish additions to the “canon”. Conan Doyle’s resentment of Holmes (as over-shadowing what he regarded as his more profound works) is well-documented. All this makes sense if someone else wrote the Holmes stories, and my favourite candidate is a Dr. James H. Watson, possibly a former army surgeon making a living after being wounded in Afghanistan and invalided out on an inadequate pension, and certainly a far more talented writer than Conan Doyle. In the stories, Watson’s first name is John, but in The Man with a Twisted Lip, his wife refers to him as James. Watson slipped up!

    *Note for non-UK readers: Thought for the Day is a 5-minute slot, broadcast on the BBC’s morning news programme Today 5 days a week, in which some religious person (most often Christian, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs are also featured) natters about some current event which they then contrive to link to their beliefs.

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