‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Three

This is part of a multipost series about ’90s anti-abortion novel The Lost Child, by Anne Atkins. The first post is here; other posts will be linked back there as I post them.

This part of the review will be about the third of the three alternating story strands that I described in my initial summary. In this strand, protagonist Caz tells the story of her relationship with her sister Poppy as part of the book-within-a-book she’s writing, thus giving us what seems on the face of it to be a rather sweet story about the lifelong bond between two sisters. However, in her book’s conclusion, Caz will reveal that Poppy was in fact imaginary. In response to her mother’s abortion, Caz invented the sister she thought she could have had and spent the next twenty-four years picturing the different things she might have been doing with this imaginary sister, and her book has actually been telling the story of her memories of imagining these things.

I originally planned to get through all of this part of the story in one post. However, Atkins has a tendency to weave in bits of anvil-dropping moralising, and there was so much to discuss that I’ve finally decided to split it into two posts. As I still have two concluding posts planned after that, this will make the full review six posts long.

Content warning: Greek myth involving rape, body mutilation, silencing, and child murder.


The imaginary baby sister

This strand of the story starts out with what are supposedly Caz’s memories of the day Poppy was born. This scene works well in light of the reveal; the scenes Caz describes are blurred and confused in a way that could work equally well for ‘adult remembering something that happened when she was six’ and ‘six-year-old’s imagined version of what a baby sister’s birth would be like’. However, the next scene doesn’t. It’s a lengthy anecdote about how six-year-old Caz and her grandfather get left in charge of baby Poppy one afternoon and chaos ensues, which works well when we think it’s an actual story of someone looking back on what a mess they now realise they made of something as a child and joking about it all in hindsight, but doesn’t read like something that a six-year-old would have had the self-awareness to invent.

The imaginary justifying quote

As Poppy gets older, Caz and Poppy play together extremely well despite the age gap. That fits perfectly with the reveal (of course Caz would want to picture this imaginary sister as someone she loved playing with). However, what doesn’t fit well with the reveal is that Caz ‘quotes’ her mother as telling other people that it’s actually really easy to have a fourth child because Caz and Poppy just amuse each other all day long and her mother has hardly anything to do. Since under the circumstances her mother clearly couldn’t have said any such thing, what this means is that Caz has blatantly invented a quote from her mother to convince us and herself how easy it would have been for her mother to have the baby. (As Atkins herself has four children, she might well have been trying to get in her own opinion about her own experience. However, she doesn’t seem to have realised what an inappropriate comment it is from Caz in this context.)

The Greek myth

When Caz is twelve and Poppy supposedly six, they spend a holiday with her grandfather, who is apparently a retired classics teacher and who is ‘appalled’ to find out that Caz’s private school no longer teaches classics. Caz is in fact interested in learning the subject and thus her grandfather starts telling them various Greek myths, including the particularly gruesome one of Procne and Philomena. In this story, Procne’s husband King Tereus rapes her sister Philomela and cuts her tongue out to prevent her from complaining; when Philomela nevertheless manages to communicate the terrible truth to her sister by weaving a tapestry which shows the story, Procne gets her revenge on her husband by killing their son Itylus (or Itys, in most versions, but this is the name Atkins used).

Atkins had a few different Doylistic reasons for including this myth, which I’ll get to, but first Caz asks her grandfather the obvious question; why would Procne get revenge by killing the child who was her much-loved son as well? This seemed like a good question, so I did a fairly small amount of internet research and found a point which hadn’t occurred to me; Procne, in the story, would not actually have another option for getting any sort of justice for her sister. Her husband was the king in a country with an absolute monarchy, so he was above the law. I realised that the power of the myth was in Procne’s dilemma; she either had to let a hideous crime against the person she loved the best go unavenged, or avenge it in a way that would hurt her even more. We can disagree with her solution and still recognise why the story of the dilemma is powerful.

Now, if I can work that out I’m fairly sure a classics teacher should be able to work it out. And surely someone who’s ‘appalled’ that his granddaughter isn’t being taught the classics should be eager to seize the chance to explain this. However, here’s her grandfather’s take on it:

‘Well, it was an ancient feminist protest, I suppose. Like Medea. Men could be pretty beastly in those days, and what else could she do?’

‘But didn’t she love him?’

‘Her son? Indeed she did: she died of grief afterwards. She and her sister. That’s why nightingales and swallows have such sad voices.’

‘Then why did she do something which would upset her even more than it would upset her husband?’ I wanted to like Procne, as her story was such a romantic one, but she did seem to me to have behaved idiotically.

‘Ah, now, some people would say that’s what Women’s Lib. is all about,’ Grandfather said with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t dare: your mother would give me a frightful ticking off. But it’s only a story, darling. You mustn’t take it too seriously.’

So, there you have it. Raping and mutilating your sister-in-law, leaving her voiceless, is ‘pretty beastly’. But clearly the only reason a woman might not want her sister treated in such a way is that she’s making some sort of ‘feminst protest’ (really, darn those feminists!). And, even if you’re appalled by children not getting to learn the subjects you think they should learn, don’t bother taking the chance to fill in the gaps if you can instead take a dig at ‘Women’s Lib’ while pretending you’re not doing so.

Anyway. One of Atkins’ reasons for including this myth was, of course, so that she could throw in this mention of a woman killing her child because Incomprehensible Feminsty Reasons, Really, These Feminists. Another reason will come up in the final chapters. The other reasons (one thing I do respect about Atkins’ writing is that she does get in a decent amount of layering in this way) are that this helps to set up Caz’s future career and Poppy’s future imaginary career, and it gives us our title grab. Caz writes a short story based on the myth, with illustrations supposedly done by Poppy, and submits it to a publisher under the title ‘The Lost Child’; it gets published in a collection of children’s stories.

Moralising in India

Caz and Poppy drift apart somewhat in Caz’s teenage and university years (which, again, makes meta-sense, since it can reasonably be interpreted as Caz’s interest in her imaginary friend waning quite naturally in her teenage years). Caz then goes travelling through India after university to get some life experience, and meets up with her older brother, who’s working there as an engineer and living in what seems to be a very remote rural village, where he’s formed a relationship with a local woman. Would there be long-term engineering projects in very remote rural villages? I’m a bit dubious, but the Doylist reason is that Atkins wants to set things up for a speech from him about The Evils of Modern Western Society.

‘What d’you imagine it felt like,’ Jack asked me, ‘to be living in the Roman empire at the time of its collapse?’

I was completely stumped. ‘Well, I suppose … er. What did they have? Orgies and things. I guess if you were rich enough …’

‘Exactly,’ Jack said. ‘It probably felt all right. Perhaps quite fun: they might even have argued that that kind of sexual freedom, for instance, was an advance on the strictness they’d had before. […]’

It sounds from this as though Atkins went along with the view that the fall of Rome was related to their sexual activities. From what I can find out on the subject, that idea now seems to be thoroughly discredited. By the way, the actual answer to what it would have been like to live in the Roman Empire when it collapsed seems to be, for the most part, ‘Horrible, with severe food shortages and a high death rate‘.

‘[…]Anyway, that’s what Europe looks like to me now: a society in decline. […]’


‘But how does it affect things? What d’you mean?’ After all, does it matter if society’s in decline, if people are fed and warm and comfortable?

If people are fed and warm and comfortable, that sounds like a society that’s doing rather well. But what Atkins is talking about, apart from the implication about what she sees as sexual immorality, is the society’s attitude towards having children.

‘It affects everything. It means children over here are more important than cars or telephones. It means people would rather have a family than an electric oven. It means there’s a hierarchy, and people have duties to one another, instead of simply having rights.[…]’

I’ve never understood this particular either-or; it’s like saying ‘coins should have a tail side as well as a head side’. The existence of rights automatically implies the existence of duties.

‘[…] It means I have to decide whether I want to give up my way of life back home and stay here and marry Shangani; or take her home with me; or give her up. If this were Europe we would have been living together for the last year, and she would have had a child if she wanted one, and wouldn’t have if she didn’t, and if she wanted a career she’d have a career, and if she didn’t she wouldn’t; and if I wanted to leave I’d leave, and if I didn’t I’d stay for a while.’

And you’re talking as though having those choices was a bad thing. Yes, I do much prefer living in a society where creating new humans or entering into permanent unions are choices rather than obligations and where women as well as men get the opportunity of having careers. I notice we aren’t told what Shangani thinks of the issue; how does she feel about living in a society that expects her to have children whether she wants to or not?

(On a separate issue, I can’t find the name ‘Shangani’ on any of the main name sites. I might be wrong but I have the feeling Atkins might have pulled a Panju here.)

Caz says that surely that approach is ‘much more convenient, after all’, which doesn’t sound at all to me like an actual response anyone would make to this; I suspect Atkins is working from some kind of pro-choice stereotype (as per the ‘they have abortions for convenience!’ myth). Jack says that it’s more convenient but he’s not sure it’s right, and he’s considering whether to stay in India with Shangani.

‘I don’t want a child in England,’ he said. ‘Europe doesn’t value children. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.’

First, a disclaimer: India and Europe are both huge areas with populations in the hundreds of millions, so I’m very wary of generalisations about how people in one of these places think X while people in the other think Y. However, taken in the context of Jack’s speech and the fact that he’s living in a particularly poor and remote area, what Atkins seems to be trying to say is that subsistence societies place a greater level of importance on having children than Westernised societies do. And, while this is true overall, I think Atkins has completely missed the point of why this is. It’s not because children in subsistence societies are more valued as individual people; it’s because, in a subsistence society, children are your workers and your pension fund. I suspect Atkins might be less keen on the reality of that attitude to children.

The reappearance of Poppy

Caz gets a job as a correspondent in Iran and moves there. After a bit more than a year and a half, she starts up with Poppy again, with the in-story explanation supposedly being that Poppy is travelling for a bit after finishing art school so will come out and see her. How this is supposed to fit with the reveal is extremely unclear. We do learn that Caz is really lonely and longing for another British woman to talk to, but taking up with your childhood imaginary friend again seems a bit of an odd way for an adult to deal with loneliness, and doesn’t go that well with Atkins’ main storyline about the Poppy invention supposedly being Caz’s reaction to the effect on her of her mother’s abortion. There’s then a whole bit about Caz waiting for Poppy and getting so worried when she doesn’t turn up that she phones her parents daily, and Poppy eventually hitch-hiking to get to Caz who then berates her for taking such a terrible risk. Again, I’ve no idea how any of this is meant to fit with the reveal. I suspect that at this point in the story Atkins had temporarily lost sight of the fact that Poppy wasn’t supposed to be real.

Caz loves spending time with Poppy and ends up deciding to come home to London. As it happens, Caz’s parents have just moved to the country and are letting ‘Poppy’ have their London house, so Caz moves in with her. No mention is made of how the finances work out; do Caz’s parents just let her have a family-sized house in London for little or no money while still somehow affording a second place themselves, or is Caz paying a London-rate rent or mortgage on a house that size on a freelance correspondent’s pay? The former sounds implausible but the latter would be downright impossible, so, on Sherlock Holmes’ famous principle, I’ll go with the explanation that her parents were letting her spend years living in a very valuable house for at most a peppercorn rent. That adds an even more pronounced level of poignancy to the way Caz is currently treating her parents.

Anyway, that issue aside, Caz finds that sharing a house with her imaginary friend works beautifully:

In some ways we were happier than the happiest of cohabiting couples. We never quarrelled, as couples inevitably do because they have so much invested in each other. We were never jealous, because we had no rights to each other. If we found each other irritating we could ignore each other for a few days. If either of us needed a change, we could go on holiday with someone else, or simply travel, for a couple of weeks or more. If one of us had a new boyfriend, as I did seldom and Poppy did frequently, the other would simply take a delighted interest in the progress of the affair. [p 251]

That’s the nice thing about imaginary friends; you can picture their interests and wishes as harmonising exactly with yours. I do wonder if Atkins realised this or if she really thought this was a realistic description of what a beautiful relationship Caz could have had with her younger sibling if her mother had continued her pregnancy. Of course an actual relationship with a real sibling – with someone who would have been hanging around hogging the bathroom when Caz wanted to ignore them, who probably wouldn’t have wanted to disappear on holiday conveniently just when Caz wanted them to, who would have had actual new partners whom Caz might not have got on with, who would have had all sorts of traits that would have grated on Caz’s nerves, who might well not have wanted this convenient house-share in the first place – wouldn’t have gone this well. Maybe it would still have been a great sibling relationship, maybe not; but it would never have lived up to the idealised image Caz is picturing.

I think this is a good place to break the post, so I’ll post the rest of my review of this part of the story in a few days, followed up by two more posts as per the original plan.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    …Caz ‘quotes’ her mother as telling other people that it’s actually really easy to have a fourth child…

    In contrast, of course, to the standard anti-choice mythology that anyone having an abortion will spend the rest of their lives in lonely barrenness – apparently the fate of the “actual” mother here.

    … I can’t find the name ‘Shangani’ on any of the main name sites.

    Perhaps derived from Shangri-la?

  2. Jazzlet says

    it’s actually really easy to have a fourth child because Caz and Poppy just amuse each other all day long and her mother has hardly anything to do.

    Cue hysterical laughter on my part. There were six of us in my family and it certainly didn’t work out that way. The oldest two quarreled all the time, and so did the youngest two. The younger of the oldest two was ten when I was born so I missed a lot of their fighting, but it was still going on in my earliest memories, and they never liked each other. As one of the youngest two I know our fighting went on until we were in our late teens – the physical side of it only stopped because Little Bro got bigger than me. When we were younger we frequently had to be physically separated, so while that may work for some families it certainly doesn’t for others. And ours wasn’t the only family I knew with that dynamic. Come to that the pattern of quarreling siblings starts pretty early on in the bible, which one would hope Atkins had some familiarity with.

    And just “urgh” to the straw man feminism crap, and to the ludicrous stereotyping of whole (sub-continents.

  3. Katydid says

    If this story has any truth to it whatsoever, Caz is severely mentally ill and needs to be somewhere she can be cared for. It’s crazy to become worried that your imaginary friend is late to visit you, and even worse to imagine they’re hitch-hiking and engaging in other dangerous actions.

    Also, I’ve been watching Escape to the Country for a decade, and I can’t believe a couple ready to downsize to the country is willing to let a London property sit empty (when Poppy is supposed to be in it) or even let a single grown adult freeload in it. Depending on where in “the country” they bought (South Devon with an ocean view? The Cotswolds?) the retirement house might be every bit as expensive as the London house.

    The rest of it…yeah, I view it in the same vein as the endless rightwing “jokes” about the snooty rich professor who either demands a restaurant take down their American flags and the entire jam-packed restaurant claps when they’re thrown out, or, spews anti-Military nonsense and a Marine student beats him up in front of the whole class and the entire lecture hall stands for an ovation.

    As for the anti-feminist Greek myths…what psychopath tells stories to that to a child as an introduction about Greek myths? Nobody mentally healthy would start with that–they might talk about running to Marathon or any of the Aesop’s fables like the one with the fox and the grapes, or even Heracles/Hercules….but it takes a truly sick mind to talk to a child about a king raping his sister-in-law and the slaughter of a beloved child.

    What this phoney-baloney story does highlight is the one-track, fetid mind of so many anti-choicers.

  4. says

    ‘Ah, now, some people would say that’s what Women’s Lib. is all about,’ Grandfather said with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    Yep, yet another forced-birther talking-point requiring outrageous and unrealistic twists of plot events.

    And yes, wives murdering their own kids because it’s the only way they can respond to their husbands’ pointlessly-rigid refusal to accommodate their needs in any way, seems to be a thing in ancient Greek plays. It’s not “feminism,” it’s despair and madness. There is a difference.

  5. Katydid says

    Another delusional, anti-choice belief; that more children are less work for Mother (and it’s always Mother taking care of the children in these households). It’s exhausting to care for small children because their needs are endless. Parents interested in raising children who are physically and mentally healthy put in time and effort to meet all their needs and enrich their lives with learning and growth opportunities. People who focus on quantity over quality don’t tend to raise healthy kids to be healthy adults. As we see in Caz who’s so deluded and mentally ill that she obsesses over an imaginary friend being late and imagines that a sibling would never, ever disagree or be difficult…and nobody in her family notices.

    Also, everything Raging Bee said.

  6. Katydid says

    Dr. Sarah, you might not have known this, or if you did, you may have forgotten:

    In 2001, after being forced to have 5 children in 7 years despite ever-increasing mental health problems made worse by post-partum depression, Andrea Yates drowned her children in the bathtub to save them from becoming tainted by the evil world. Her husband (and therefore she) were part of a fundagelical fertility cult that demanded complete submission from the women, and nonstop pregnancy and childbirth. Additionally, the women kept house and homeschooled all the children they birthed. Her husband kept changing jobs, and at various points the family lived in an old schoolbus, a broken-down trailer, and various budget hotels before he landed a job that paid well.

    It became obvious by the third pregnancy that Andrea Yates was not a mentally well woman. She spoke of her pillow whispering things to her at night and she stopped eating. She had a couple of brief psychiatric in-patient stints and the doctor warned her husband Randy that pregnancy was making her worse, and she should not get pregnant anymore. Randy ignored that because his fundy cult convinced him that nonstop childbirth was what the lord wanted. He wouldn’t let her take her mental health meds.

    So, in a state of psychosis, and not having eaten or slept in days, she believed she herself was evil and possessed by demons, and being in her care was consigning her children to hell, so she methodically drowned them, in order from oldest to youngest. She could do this because her husband left an obviously deeply suffering woman alone with the children–she was still expected to keep a spotless home and homeschool the children and care for the baby. That’s what a “good Christian woman” would do.

    In the USA, the nation rose as one to condemn the obviously-nonfunctional mother, and supported the husband. Andrea Yates was sentenced to prison, Rusty Yates divorced her, and married another woman because he was “owed” sex, children, and a live-in maid and cook.

    Info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Yates

  7. says

    If one of us had a new boyfriend, as I did seldom and Poppy did frequently…

    What, her imaginary younger sister has a more active love-life then she does? That’s another layer of weirdness, to put it mildly…

  8. StevoR says

    @ ^ Raging Bee : A literal fantasy sex life – for an fantasy sister so, of course, no issues because Caz (& the author) wanted there to be none. Lots of imaginary, I’ll presume here, boyfriends*. All of them conveniently right and unproblematically temporary it seems. No life as easy and sweet as one you imagine that way. A bit of projection of her own wishes maybe? If Caz’es own partners weren’t imaginary as well, I wonder what they thought of that and her rel’ship with the imaginary sister? For Mitty’s** sake!

    @ 6. Katydid : And the prosecution wanted Andrea Yates to face the death penalty. Just horrendous.


    ..her grandfather starts telling them various Greek myths, including the particularly gruesome one of Procne and Philomena

    I thought I knew my Greek myths pretty well but I don’t recall hearing / reading that one before. Definitley not one for the young kids! A starter one of my chocie would be the Orion vs Scorpius one, a great hunter brought down by a little invertebrate and the danger of hubris and trying to kill everything on the planet but then that’s my bias as an armchair astronomer & greenie.

    .* I’m guessing given the author and her ideology it’s highly unlikely an imaginary Poppy would be other than imaginarily hetereonormative..would make for a more imtresting story if not tho’.. and what safer queer character than a non-existent one huh?

    .** Referencing :


  9. says

    StevoR: It’s also possible that Caz has all manner of wild & crazy sexual fantasies and desires, but she can’t admit she has them ‘cuz they’re all contrary to God’s will; so she projects all of them onto her imaginary little sister, who then becomes the wildest & craziest perverted slut who (n)ever lived?

    If I wrote a totally silly porn-movie script based on this, would Atkins be able to sue me? Asking for a friend…

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