Walking Disaster, Chapter 18

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.


Chapter 18: Lucky Thirteen

My word, it has been a while. I had to look back to find out what had been happening in the book at the point where I was last reviewing it (it involved Abby standing up to Trav and calling him out, so that actually managed to be briefly enjoyable). Let’s see…

Travis is taking Abby home to meet the family. The place reeks of everybody smoking and of ancient carpet, and one of Abby’s brothers calls Travis an asshat the minute he’s through the door (to be fair, I cannot actually disagree…) but Trav is confident Abby’s going to love his family anyway.

There’s a bit about how Thomas has made it his job for years to ‘calm potential storms’ in the family by being ‘always on the lookout for someone that could potentially rock our already rickety boat’, because they all recognise that ‘Dad can’t take it’ if there are problems. So, major dysfunction and parentification going on there.

Trenton eyes up Abby and gets slapped on the back of the head by his father for it. Abby, meanwhile, recognises someone called Stu Ungar from a photo. (Famous poker player, in case anyone else was wondering, but I had to look that up because McGuire doesn’t really explain it. Is he famous enough in the US that McGuire could reasonably have assumed her readers would have heard of him?) This scores her major points with the family, who are about to launch straight into a poker game, including Travis. Great welcome for a guest there; if Abby hadn’t been a poker fan, she’d have been left twiddling her thumbs through multiple games. (This scene could have been rather better done if the mention of Stu Ungar had led to the boys finding out that Abby loves poker and asking if she wants a game, rather than clearly being about to launch into one regardless.)

Fortunately, it turns out that Abby’s brilliant at poker and wipes the floor with them all. Thomas then recognises her surname and puts it together… Abby is the daughter of Mick Abernathy, a poker legend. This makes her an out-and-out celebrity in the family’s eyes, and they go wild for her. We now get our title grab; it’s a press nickname of Abby’s. Apparently her father gave an interview saying that his luck ‘ran dry’ at midnight on her thirteenth birthday and hers picked up instead. And she grew up playing poker with her father’s friends, who were mobsters.

Abby is looking mortified by all this and Travis and family think she’s the best thing since sliced bread. Travis finds this so hot he makes excuses to his family and heads home with her straight away, where he finds out Abby’s worried she’s mad at her for not telling him. When she finds out he’s actually starstruck, she’s not much happier with that; she left Kansas to get away from being Mick Abernathy’s daughter, which sucked for her. Travis actually does the decent thing for once and promises her he won’t mention it again and won’t tell anyone else.

Later, after Abby’s asleep, Travis gets texted by ‘Jason Brazil’. That clears something up; ‘Brazil’ is clearly his surname, not his first name, so at least that’s less improbable than having two characters with unusual country first names. I do wonder in passing whether that fact gets a mention in ‘Beautiful’, or McGuire put it in only after everyone pointed out to her how unlikely it would be to have a Brazil and an America in the same friend group. Anyway, Brazil is texting to tell Trav that Parker is ‘talkin smack’ about him. Apparently Abby is still calling him and Parker is waiting in the wings to get his chance when Trav screws up… oh, great, sounds like Parker’s going full-on Nice Guy. Brazil also tells Trav:

Sd just now that she told him the other day she was really unhappy but u were kinda crazy and she was worried about when to do it.

Trav, being Trav, immediately jumps straight to wanting to wreck Parker’s car, rather than wanting to speak to Abby and find out whethr she is unhappy and whether there’s anything he can do to make her feel more comfortable. However, he at least manages to keep this under control, so… some character growth has happened! Yay, McGuire! Shepley spots this as well, the next day; he thinks Parker planned this to wind Trav up to send him into a jealous rage that would convince Abby to break up with him. (Sadly plausible.)

Trav then tells Shepley he’s on his way to get a new tattoo, and…

“What are you doing, Trav?”

“What I always said I would do if I met the right girl.”

So it sounds like he’s about to go get the sort of Abs-&-Trav-4-evah tattoo that everyone tells you it’s a terrible idea to get when you’ve just started going out with the person. Shepley tries to talk Trav out of this in case it freaks Abby out, and Trav not only refuses to listen, he tells Shepley he’s going to the jeweller’s store next, to ‘have it. For when the time is right.’ So apparently he’s planning to buy Abby an engagement ring to have at the ready. When he’s nineteen, she’s eighteen, and they’ve only known each other for what seems to be a few months, although in McGuire Time it’s difficult to tell.

Shepley tries talking some sense:

“No time anytime soon is right. I am so in love with America that it drives me crazy sometimes, but we’re not old enough for that shit, yet, Travis. And . . .  what if she says no?”

And, of course, Travis has no intention of listening; he’s on his way to get that tattoo and buy that ring. I’m going to hazard a guess that Abby will, in fact, see all this as super-romantic and not a red flag at all, but we do not find out at this point as the chapter ends here. Huh; that means I actually made it through a chapter review in fairly short order. Amazing what you can do when the dysfunction reduces. Maybe the rest of the book will be like this and I can whiz through it? I’m a completionist and do want to finish it, but I don’t want to devote my life to it. We shall see.

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

This is the last of a multi-part series reviewing the 1994 anti-abortion novel ‘The Lost Child’, in which protagonist Caz reacts to her mother’s abortion by constructing an elaborate lifelong fantasy about the younger sister she imagines she would have had. Part One is here and contains links to all the other parts.

At this point in the book, Caz has finished writing and publishing her book, in between a rapid and intense romance with her next-door neighbour Will, to whom she is now engaged.

Content warning: Talk of child death, life support cessation decisions, ablism (though this is presented as wrong in-story), inappropriate pressure from the medical profession, description of callous treatment of a body after death, and suicide plans.


The highbrow despair

Having ended the previous chapter (the conclusion of the book-within-a-book) on a positive note, with Caz looking forward to the future, Atkins starts this one with Caz in the depths of despair. In a very highbrow literary way, to the point where she actually lampshades it; ‘Oh, Caz, can’t you even watch your heart break without quoting effing literature?’ she writes after quoting Macbeth and rambling about how Laurence Olivier managed to howl effectively on stage when required by learning it from trapped minks.

The next several pages are Caz a) lamenting how awful she feels and b) telling the Greek myth of Cassandra because Atkins wants this for symbolic purposes which I’ll get to shortly. One slightly odd thing here (which will be relevant in a few minutes, so bear with me) is that Caz claims that, as part of the curse, Cassandra knows her prophecies will be believed just once in her life, on the day that she dies.  This would be a brilliantly effective addition to the curse (imagine not only never being believed, but knowing that when it eventually happens it won’t be a relief as it’ll be a sign of your own imminent death), but it isn’t one that I can find in any version online, nor could I find anyone who’d heard of it when I asked on Reddit. I’m not sure whether Atkins took liberties with the story deliberately, whether she actually had heard this version somewhere herself, or whether she simply got it wrong.

Anyway, we eventually find out what all this is about; her lover Will has finally told her the full story of his child’s death, and it turns out that he gave the doctors permission to turn off the life-support machine, which Caz finds unacceptable.

Will’s story (as told by Caz)

Late in her pregnancy, Will’s wife was hospitalised and unconscious with severe pneumonia. The baby was delivered by emergency Caesarean and put on a life-support machine. The next day, the paediatric team came to Will (his wife was still unconscious) and told him that ‘there was a considerable possibility of brain-damage to a greater or lesser extent’. We’re not told what sort of level of brain damage the doctors were suspecting here, but Caz implies that it’s on the level of ‘won’t get qualifications or go to university’. The consultant’s response to this level of uncertainty was…

Their medical opinion was that the continuance of life-support for the foetus was strongly contra-indicated.

As before, Atkins apparently doesn’t know that ‘foetus’ is a term specifically used for the stages of development prior to birth and thus no-one would have been referring to a child after birth by this term. However, that’s far from being the worst plausibility problem with this story. We’re told that the consultant not only recommended switching off the life-support machine, he wanted a fairly quick answer from Will about this because…

[…] as there was no knowing how long the machine would be needed … well, suffice it to say that Will would have to make up his mind while there was still the choice.

… and so the consultant was going to come back to Will at the end of the ward round, forty-five minutes later, and get his answer then, the clear implication thus being that this was framed as ‘switch off the life support right then or risk being saddled with a brain-damaged child which will, of course, be too awful a prospect for you to even consider it as a possible option’.

Aaaaand no, Atkins, that is not how decisions about switching off ventilators are made in real life.

There are rare and tragic cases where brain damage is so severe and the predicted quality of life so poor or non-existent that doctors will advise that life support be turned off. Typically, in such cases, the medical staff will do everything they can to be sure that the prognosis really is that bad. They will sit the parents down for a sensitive conversation about it. They will give them time to think about it. And, above all, they won’t make the suggestion in the first place unless they’re sure that the prognosis really is hopelessly dire.

This idea that a consultant would railroad a parent into making this sort of decision about a child who was already showing enough signs of improvement that they anticipated her shortly being able to breathe independently is just so far away from the reality of these sorts of situations that I’m flabbergasted that Atkins had the brass neck to write this. This is deeply insulting to all the doctors who’ve had to guide parents through these horrible decisions with sensitivity and professionalism. While I disagree with Atkins’ views on abortion, at least with abortion she’s objecting to something that actually happens and not to some strawman she’s invented.

Oh; we also get told a few pages later that the baby’s body was thrown out with hospital trash after death. Again, no. I get that Atkins is probably trying to make some sort of point about how much she disapproves of fetuses being treated this way after abortion or miscarriage, but that isn’t what happens when children die after birth. (For that matter, it’s also not what happens with stillbirths after viability or even with late miscarriages.) Both parents would have been given a chance to hold and say goodbye to their child and then a chance to plan a funeral and choose either burial or cremation. Atkins is arguing against a strawman.

Caz’s reaction

So, Caz has told us this heart-wrenching story of Will, left alone and without guidance under this sort of pressure while his wife is still unconscious. She tells us about how he desperately tries to get through to someone he trusts with whom he can discuss this horrible decision, and can’t manage it within the short time he’s been given, and how he prays for an answer and doesn’t get one, and eventually, after forty horrible minutes of this, tells the doctors that he’ll ‘be ruled by them’, because he just can’t think of any other way to make the decision. Regardless of what you think of the rightness or wrongness of the decision itself, it’s very hard to read this without your heart going out to anyone faced with such a horrible situation and so little support.

Well, except apparently for Caz. She writes in her diary that he ‘murdered his child’ and that he ‘must be a monster’ who ‘destroys everything I’ve ever lived for’. That’s the level of compassion she’s able to show for the man she supposedly loves so much.

And that’s completely in line with the way Atkins has written her character. So far, through the book, we’ve seen a judgemental woman with rigid views on right or wrong, whose main relationship has been with an imaginary person she can idealise, who doesn’t seem able to extend sympathy or grace to the flaws of real people, and who doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of being able to sympathise with a decision with which she disagrees. Meanwhile, she’s seen no problems with making a decision to marry her first serious partner only a few months after meeting him, while still in full-on NRE stage.

With that background, it feels very realistic that she has this kind of 180o reaction to finding out something about Will of which she disapproves. She doesn’t seem to have any kind of framework for accepting and forgiving someone who has done anything with which she disagrees, however long ago and however deeply regretted. And, now that she can no longer idealise Will (the way she idealised her imaginary sister), everything has crashed down for her.

But I don’t get any sense that this characterisation was deliberate on Atkins’ part. It could, in fact, have worked really well to present Caz deliberately as a flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator. But Atkins is trying to present her as Cassandra the ignored prophetess, the truth-speaker we should all believe. Atkins is on Caz’s side here.

Having given this scene a lot more thought than it actually deserves, I’ve eventually realised that Atkins is clumsily trying to make some point about non-Christians supposedly being unable to forgive:

So what do I do? I honestly don’t think I know anyone who’d understand. I once knew a man [her grandfather] who would have done. But then he had a future and a city with a crystal river to look forward to, where the sun never sets. He would have known what to do. But this, all this futility, wasn’t the end for him.

I don’t have his future or his faith, and my point of reference isn’t the Bible but the classics – which he understood well enough too – so I’ll have to look for my answers there.

So it seems Atkins thinks nonbelievers are incapable of forgiveness. At the same time, she seems to have no concept of reacting to a disagreement by thinking about the person’s reasons for acting the way they did and/or their feelings about it now and whether they regretted it and forgiving others in that way. In other words, she doesn’t really seem to understand forgiveness at all. I’m left with the impression that she sees forgiveness as ticking off a mental ‘there, forgiven’ box rather than actually trying to understand anything about the other person’s viewpoint or actions.

Atkins does not seem to see anything wrong with Caz’s lack of any such attempt to understand. As far as I can see, the only problem Atkins has with Caz’s reaction seems to be that she isn’t able to tick the mental ‘there, forgiven’ box which (in Atkins’ eyes) a Christian would be able to make everything all right by ticking. Other than that, Atkins seems to see this harshness and lack of compromise as completely justified. If this is how Atkins really feels about the matter, then that tells us quite a lot about her.

And just when you thought this was bad enough… (further content warning)

Caz, having broken up with Will because of a decision he made years ago under great pressure and clearly deeply regrets, feels she also can’t face living without Will. So, her reaction is to start planning her own suicide.

She doesn’t go through with it; after a few days of relating her despair at great length (and, to be fair, with beautifully written vivid description; Atkins is good at the wordsmithery part of writing), she posts a more positive diary entry which is all very vague but does effectively imply that she’s going to go and make it up with Will. On top of which, she is apparently a major character in Atkins’ next novel, and, from the look-inside feature on Amazon, it seems she is back with Will, so clearly that’s what happened. But we do get these few days in which, although she never specifically says in so many words that she’s planning to kill herself, she makes it very clear that that’s what she’s thinking.

Now, I’m trying to think how to say this next bit, because I do not want either to minimise the horrendous pain that leads so many people to take their own lives or to make assumptions about what anyone does or doesn’t feel they have to live for. I know that people whose lives seem wonderful on the surface can have unsuspected torments beneath that surface. I know that depression is a tricksy lying weasel that can convince someone that their life is hopeless even when it seems objectively good. So please, please, do not take my next comments as being any sort of judgement on the real people who are faced with real problems that drive them to suicide, and please, if anyone reading this feels that way themselves, know that I believe in your pain and hope for you that you have people who will take it seriously and help you.

But here is the problem with Atkins’ portrayal: We’ve been reading Caz’s diary all along, so we know that she doesn’t have that level of problems. This isn’t a case of someone who seems fine on the surface while feeling terrible underneath. This is someone who has not been suffering from depression, who has not been struggling with hidden problems, whose life has by her own account been going splendidly up until the point where she chose to break up with her fiancé purely because she is too rigid and lacking in compassion to accept that he once, long ago, did something she believes to be wrong. And the result of writing Caz as planning suicide solely for that reason is that what would otherwise have been a genuinely excellently written portrayal of someone struggling with despair comes across more as a teenager having an ‘I shall DIE and THEN they’ll all be sorry!’ strop.

On top of which, we get this:

Cassandra died the moment she’d been believed; with the truth, as always, on her lips.

…which Caz ties in to the fact that she got such good reviews of the advance copy of her book:

My book has been hailed as prophetic, the catalyst to change the law. ‘The tide of morality is turning (I quote) and soon the law will protect the unborn child again, as it has throughout most of history until 1967.’

Oh, yes, they believe me now.

They believe me now.

So, Atkins is trying to draw a parallel between Caz’s planned suicide and Cassandra’s death, with both of them presented as the prophets who die only at the point where people finally believe them. I’m sure she meant this to be powerful and symbolic, but it doesn’t stand up well.

Firstly, Caz isn’t making a prophecy; she’s expressing an opinion. So people aren’t disbelieving her, they’re disagreeing with her. There’s a difference, although Atkins doesn’t seem to get that.

Secondly, the reason Cassandra’s realisation of her upcoming death was a tragedy was the inevitability of what she predicts. She knows that she’ll die later that day and she knows that there is absolutely nothing she can do to prevent it. Caz, on the other hand, is making a choice. She has the options of either facing the grief and learning to make a life without Will, or being less unbendingly rigid in her requirements for the people in her life, forgiving him, and taking him back. However much she might dislike the idea of either of those choices, they still exist.

The result of all this is that her comparison of herself with Cassandra comes across as not so much powerful as grandiose. (It also occurs to me that it is really quite rich for Caz to be comparing herself to someone who had ‘the truth, as always, on her lips’ when she has in fact spent years lying to her publishers.)

However. We are not done yet; there is still a layer of hypocrisy icing on this particular intolerance cake. Because we now find out…

Will and I are having a child.

This, by the way, is written on August 26th. Caz also says it’s a boy, so she’s supposedly far enough along to have had some sort of test for (apparent) gender. Caz and Will met on the first of May and became lovers some time in the middle of June. If Caz is not only pregnant but far enough along to have had a gender check, she must have conceived almost as soon as they started going to bed together, which was only about a month and a half after they met. That is… not a good timescale for making decisions about creating a new person for whom the two of you will be forever jointly responsible.

However, setting that aside; Caz, ferocious defender of fetal life, is pregnant. And considering suicide. So, surely, according to her own beliefs she should be planning on postponing her suicide until the baby is born? Nope. We’re back to the Greek mythology-based symbolism:

Procne took her beloved son, her Itylus, and killed him out of vengeance for her sister.


Will and I are having a child. A boy. Our Itylus.

…so Caz’s plan is, apparently, to commit suicide while she is pregnant and to view this as some kind of symbolic vengeance against Will in a gospel-according-to-Greek-mythology way.

And she’s planning this despite the fact that her defining character trait throughout the book has been her utter opposition to abortion, which she firmly believes to be child murder. Despite her protest in the end of her book, written only weeks ago, about how having to live through ‘a few short months’ of unwanted pregnancy shouldn’t outweigh a child’s right to life. Despite her childhood vow ‘never to kill my children, I mean a baby in my tummy’. Despite the fact that the entire reason she’s upset in the first place is because she’s angry at Will for what she believes to be child murder on his part. The hypocrisy is utterly breathtaking.

And it could still have worked in-story if called out. After Caz’s eventual decision not to commit suicide after all, she could have had a scene of looking back with horror at how nearly she had done something she found abhorrent. It could have been a learning moment in which she realised for the first time what it was like to be desperate enough to get to that point. She wouldn’t even have needed to change her views on abortion; just find the understanding and compassion that has been so missing from her character until now, maybe look back at her mother’s decision with new insight and sympathy. But we don’t get any of that.

The outcome, and final thoughts

After several entries in which Caz despairs of ever feeling happy again (and also some letters, including one from Caz to her niece for her sixth birthday in which she sends her the story she once wrote of Procne and Philomela, because of course that’s a totally appropriate present to send to a six-year-old, especially when you’re planning to commit suicide knowing what a traumatic event that will be for her), we get a final entry in which Caz seems to have found her way back to inner peace and a wish to go on living. And, again, the wordsmithery part of the writing here is very good. Caz goes out to look at the Thames and we get shown-not-told that she’s focusing on more positive imagery, in ways that are very nicely bookended with the negative images she was writing about back in the novel’s opening pages. The final line, in a callback to a pleading letter Will wrote Caz a few days earlier in which he told her he’d get a bottle of Moet and wait for her, is:

Well, I thought as I turned away, who ever said you couldn’t have Moet for breakfast?’

So, without being explicitly told that Caz has decided to try again with Will, we can still pick it up from that line. In these ways, this chapter is good writing.

The problem with it, however, is that we’re given no indication of how Caz got mentally from Point A to Point B. In real life it is of course fairly normal for a few days of letting the dust settle to be enough for people to find they’ve moved quite naturally from ‘LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF’ to ‘Potayto, potahto, whatever’; not every argument needs a big definitive resolution. But, when you’ve gone to the trouble of throwing a nuclear-level disagreement in as a plot twist forty pages from the end of your novel, you need to actually address it in some way, not just let it peter out vaguely into nothingness.

Caz could have realised that, while she still disagreed with what Will had done, she could nevertheless feel empathy for him and forgive him. Even better, she could have come to the obvious realisation about her own hypocrisy in planning suicide while she was still pregnant and could have learned the more general lesson of ‘people can make decisions they deeply regret later, especially in acutely stressful circumstances, while still being basically good people’ and extrapolated that to understanding and forgiving Will. But we don’t see any of that. We just go from Caz being all ready to commit suicide to make a point, to Caz waking up feeling a bit better, to Caz apparently feeling positive about life again and being about to go back to Will. So, as plot resolutions go, it’s a damp squib.

However, good or bad (I’m voting ‘indifferent’), it is the end of the book. As I mentioned, Caz does show up in a subsequent Atkins novel titled ‘On Our Own’, and if anyone does happen to have read that I’d be interested to know what happens with the plot and whether the dangling threads from the end of this one are ever addressed. But I’m not interested enough to bother ordering the book, so unless I happen to find a copy in a charity shop somewhere I will not be reading any more about Caz.

And, since I have finally ranted myself out on the topic, this is also the end of this book review. I am sadly behind on responding to comments – for which my apologies – and will try to do so in upcoming days. Meanwhile, I will close by once again channeling Richard Ayoade: Thank you for reading, if indeed you still are.

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

This is the fifth of a six-part series reviewing the 1994 anti-abortion novel ‘The Lost Child’, which is about protagonist Caz reacting to her mother’s abortion by constructing an elaborate lifelong fantasy about the younger sister she thinks she would have had. At this point in the story, Caz is finishing her own book-within-a-book about the subject, in which she alternates between her experience of her mother’s abortion when she was a child and her fantasies about her imaginary sister Poppy written as though they were actual memories. This post is going to be about the conclusion of that book-within-a-book, in which she reveals (or at least confirms, since it’s probably fairly obvious by now) the truth about Poppy’s imaginary status to her readers.

The book-within-a-book’s conclusion

Caz, after a bit of humming and hawing, comes out with the reveal:

Have at you, then; I shall say it. Know what you’ve already worked out. Poppy is dead. I shall never see her no more.

I do not wish to dismiss Caz’s clear distress over the issue, but can we please keep sight of the fact that Poppy, even within the story, never existed. I do understand that, in this storyline, Caz genuinely sees her mother’s abortion as a sibling she has lost, that this would have been a potential brother or sister for her, that from her perspective she’s lost a sibling, that her grief over this is genuine. But that’s not the same as Poppy being dead. Poppy-the-person, the character described in the book, was never more than a creation of Caz’s imagination.

What more can I say? That I see her death in terms of tabloid headlines? Terrified Child Torn Limb from Limb. Callous Cold-blooded Killing…

Atkins has clearly been reading anti-abortion propaganda; the ‘torn limb from limb’ bit is a classic anti-abortion ploy of describing abortions in the most lurid way possible, at the expense of accuracy. We also now know enough about fetal brain development to know that a fetus doesn’t develop conscious awareness this early and thus a first-trimester fetus isn’t going to feel ‘terrified’ or anything else (though, to be fair, on the level of knowledge available at the time that Atkins wrote this it would not have been unreasonable for her to believe it).

At the time, as a child, I thought my world had gone mad when I found that those who were my greatest security, those I was supposed to turn to in times of most desperate trouble, were monsters of grotesque proportions, perpetrating violence against the innocent.

While Caz could plausibly have read anti-abortion propaganda between her childhood experience and the writing of her book, what she seems to be implying here is that the ‘torn limb from limb’ view of abortions was part of what made such an impact on her back when she first heard about them. The problem with this is that, regardless of what Atkins thinks about the accuracy of this description of a abortion, it doesn’t fit with the plot she’s chosen. The whole point was meant to be that we get the reactions of a child with no prior knowledge of abortion to the euphemistic description she’s given of it. Atkins doesn’t seem to have spotted the contradiction with having this same child apparently aware enough of abortion mechanisms to interpret them in pro-life propaganda terms.

This is, I gather, an adjustmental flaw. Most children can absorb new, even shocking facts about the universe, and modify their worldview to accommodate them. I could not. I still cannot.

Actually, Caz’s (and, by implication, Atkins’s) main adjustmental flaw is that she doesn’t seem capable of recognising anyone else’s viewpoint but her own. Remember that she’s showing no empathy for her mother’s risk of postnatal depression had she continued the pregnancy, and that she couldn’t even comprehend the fact that her lover was able to see her mother’s side of the story as well as hers. And, yes, for all the heavy subtext implications that this adjustmental flaw is Really A Virtue, this sort of rigidity is a major flaw.

Caz talks about how she invented Poppy’s life to deal with ‘the fact that no-one would even acknowledge she had ever been’. Then she moves on to discussing how she now feels about her parents. Or, rather, conspicuously avoiding discussing how she now feels about her parents.

The time has come when I want to say that I don’t blame my parents, because I know that they will read my book and the last thing I want is to cause them any more pain.

Caz, come off it. While it might well be true that you don’t actively want to cause them pain, it’s also true that you are a) publishing the book, b) doing so without discussing it with your parents first, and c) not even trying to anonymise them. Clearly, avoiding pain for your parents is lower priority to you than avoiding any of the above actions. When you can’t even spend the time on a find-and-replace of the names and details in your book to at the very least try to avoid doxxing your mother in the process of publishing her personal life for the edification of the world, let alone think about not publishing it in the first place, don’t try to tell us that causing them pain is ‘the last thing’ you want.

Having assured us that she wants to say that she doesn’t blame her parents, Caz… does not say that she doesn’t blame her parents. Instead, she tells us:

When I was studying the Second World War at school, I couldn’t understand why such a civilised country, which produced Beethoven and Bach and Mozart and Goethe, and some of the most interesting and gentle people I’d ever met, could have allowed six million people to be murdered without a protest. Had they all gone collectively mad?

This, please note, is the next paragraph after Caz’s claim that she wants to say that she doesn’t blame her parents. Yup, nothing says that you don’t blame someone like comparing their actions to the Holocaust.

My teacher explained it to me by saying that many didn’t know, and more didn’t believe what they knew. And those who both knew and believed did what they could before they were arrested and hanged themseles.

But what will posterity say of us? That we all knew, we all believed, and those that condemned did so politely in the newspapers.

This is something I actually remember from my own time as a pro-lifer: actually failing to comprehend that pro-choicers genuinely do not see embryos and fetuses from conception on as being full people with full rights. I really believed that all the people supporting abortion rights must just not know about fetal development, and once they knew all the details it would change their minds. (Shut up; I was naive, OK?) The thing is, once I realised that that wasn’t so, it did give me pause; not in a ‘all those people must just be callously evil!’ way, but a ‘wait, is it possible that there’s something wrong with my conclusions here?’ way. My mind didn’t change at that point, but it was one of the things that sowed the seeds. Atkins doesn’t seem to have had this reaction.

Meanwhile, Caz still notably fails to come out and say that she doesn’t blame her parents. It’s like the scene in ‘Monsters’ University’ when the can design lecturer tells them in their first lecture that some people find can design ‘boring, unchallenging, a waste of a monster’s potential’ and then says nothing to contradict this. The headcanon I was left with is that Caz knows perfectly well on some level that blaming her parents is an unpleasant thing to do that doesn’t fit well with her image of herself, and so is subconsciously struggling with wanting to say that she doesn’t blame her parents but not wanting to do the actual emotional work of not blaming her parents.

However, while the silence remains deafening on the topic of whether Caz blames her parents now, she does tell us this:

Strangely enough, I think that on a subconscious level, emotionally not rationally, without questioning why, as a child I blamed my father not my mother. This was totally unfair of me.

Yes, it was, rather, wasn’t it?

A possibly relevant bit of background here: Atkins happens to have read the same anti-abortion propaganda book as I did back in my anti-abortion days; ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, by Margaret White. I know this because she quotes from it several times for her chapter epigraphs. While it is a mercifully long time since I have read this book, one thing I do remember is that White did try the ‘but why do fathers get no say in what happens to their unborn children!’ argument. I wonder, therefore, whether that’s where Atkins got it from.

By the way, the reason I remember that detail is because it was the one claim I managed to see through even when I’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for the rest; I recognised perfectly well that this supposed concern for giving men ‘a say’ in the decision would be nowhere to be found in a situation where it was the man who wanted the abortion and the woman who didn’t, that pro-lifers were going to be just as much against abortion in a situation where both partners agreed that was what they wanted, and that White was only using the argument because it supported her overall viewpoint, not because it actually stood up. Shame this didn’t give me any pause in questioning everything else she wrote, but at least I spotted that fallacy.

Anyway, however Atkins got there, she seems to have actually spotted the practical flaws in this particular argument while still finding it convincing on an emotional level. This gives her an interesting case of cognitive dissonance:

I believe he would have liked another child. But he is a gentleman and a scholar, and would never have dreamt of compelling my mother to do something against her will. Indeed, such an idea is unthinkable as well as repellent. The man must be a monster who would force his wife to carry a child she didn’t want, even if the law allowed him to, which it didn’t. I have no desire whatsoever to return to a so-called ‘Christian’ society, or emigrate to an ‘Islamic’ state, where a man has powers over his wife and can tell her what to do.

But at this point something atavistic and childlike deep within me cries out in protest against the civilised times we live in. Why can’t a man have some say over his child’s life?

Excuse me, Caz, but your father did have some say. You had a family vote. He cast his vote. He accepted that he was outvoted. That is having some say. I’ve never before seen it made quite so obvious that ‘Why can’t men have a say?’ is code for ‘Let’s look for excuses to stop women from getting abortions!’

And is a woman’s body so precious, I want to ask, that it is worth more, for a few months, than my sister’s whole three score years and ten?

Can we drop the claim that pregnancy and birth are just a matter of ‘a few months’? It’s nine months plus postnatal recuperation time of varying and typically significant degrees of problems, with all sorts of potential complications (speaking of which, let’s once more remember that Caz knows about her mother’s high risk of postnatal depression), some of which can be permanent. And that’s all even without discussing the permanent impact that becoming a parent has on your life.

And, yes, everyone’s rights to their body are that ‘precious’. That’s why we don’t make organ donation compulsory.

It’ll be said, by those who want to say it, that I had problems because of my upbringing. That I suffered a trauma, at the age of five, because of well-meaning parents who were too liberal, who told me too much, who allowed me to know something that a five year old can’t cope with. That I suffered from too much truth. Say that if you must. I’ll never believe it. The truth, in itself, can’t be harmful.

Firstly, I think that, whether or not her parents did the right thing by telling her about her mother’s pregnancy and abortion, the way they dealt with telling her was terrible. Her mother told her about her pregnancy before having made the decision about it, thus giving Caz a chance to get excited over the prospect of having a sister only to have that snatched away from her, and then there was the whole dreadful family vote scene in which she was left feeling that the responsibility for stopping the abortion was somehow on her. If they were going to tell her, it would have been better if they’d presented her with a fait accompli and then sympathised with her disappointment over not getting the sister she wanted. (Caz’s grief and disappointment about this haven’t been properly acknowledged by her parents at any point, and are inextricably tangled with her moral outrage.)

Secondly, regardless of the effect on Caz of knowing vs. not knowing, Caz is showing that her parents were wrong to trust her with the information. She’s about to make a personal and painful episode in her mother’s life public, without discussing that with her mother. While Caz is still focusing only on the impact on herself and what would or wouldn’t have been best for her, I think her mother would have been better off not telling her.

I hope I shall follow my parents’ example, and always tell my own children the truth, however unpleasant it is. If they ask me where we go when we die I shall answer, quite truthfully, that for all I know some godless hell awaits us.

I suspect this is Atkins trying to write what she thinks a nonbeliever might sound like and ending up in ‘said no actual person ever’ territory. In terms of the validity of this approach, it’s like answering “What are we going to do today?” with “Well, for all I know a grisly fatal accident might await us” on the grounds that it’s quite true that for all you know that might be the case. Telling people ‘the truth, however unpleasant it is’ has its points as an approach but does not require deliberately digging up the most unpleasant hypothetical situation possible.

Caz wraps up the epilogue and her book-within-a-book on a positive note, telling us that she’s finally said goodbye to Poppy and is moving on and building her own life, and that she’s looking forward to having her own children ‘and making my own mistakes instead of dwelling on other people’s’, which was more of a self-own than I’d have expected. Thus ends Caz’s book-within-a-book.

There are still a few more chapters of the overall book, all part of the frame story of Caz’s diary and letters. While I’ll review those in a separate and final post, there is one point from the next chapter that seems to fit more neatly in this part of the review, which is the reception of Caz’s book by the ARC reviewers:

My book has been hailed as prophetic, the catalyst to change the law. ‘The tide of morality is turning (I quote), and soon the law will protect the unborn child again, as it has throughout most of history until 1967.’

To get the pedantry out of the way first; I have no idea why Atkins included the words ‘I quote’ in brackets. That’s both unnecessary (since the quote marks show that it’s a quote) and inaccurate (unless the original line she’s quoting included those words in brackets). C’mon, Atkins; according to your Wikipedia page, your degree is in English Language and Literature.

In terms of Atkins’ claim here, this wishful thinking on her part wasn’t fulfilled by her own book either in terms of the law changing or, as far as I can remember, in terms of making much of an impression at all. (To be fair, it was of course almost thirty years ago, but I do spend a good deal of time in bookshops and this book doesn’t ring any bells as anything I remember seeing when it came out).

As for Caz’s book, realistically it’s hard to see why that would make that much of an impression on society’s collective opinions. Why should ‘children’s author wanted a baby sister and didn’t get one’, which is what this boils down to, be a stronger anti-abortion argument than any of the ones we already know? Doylistically, I suspect Atkins thinks she’s written the equivalent of an alternative-universe scenario in which we get to see what a great and talented person the world could have had and what a wonderful relationship Caz would have had with her sister if only it hadn’t been for the abortion. But, of course, that isn’t how the story goes; what we’re actually given is Caz’s idealised imagining of the wonderful sister and trouble-free relationship she thinks she could have had, which isn’t the same thing at all. Watsonianly, meanwhile, I’m headcanoning that Caz’s publishers realised what they’d been saddled with and sent the ARCs off to the most pro-life reviewers they knew of so that at least they got glowing reviews to quote.

Anyway, that’s it for this section. The last post in this series, with review of the final part of the frame story, will be up next. Brace yourselves; it’s another doozy.