There are natural disasters so horrifying that they dominate the airways 24/7, high-jacking our consciousness and our everyday discourse. The 2004 tsunami was one such event. Yet in time, for most of us, inevitably if heartlessly, the terrible images faded and more mundane, immediate concerns again took precedence.
But what if the nightmare were to continue? BETWEEN A MOTHER AND HER CHILD is about a London family shorn of its oldest son, leaving some of its members frozen in shock and grief, unable to mourn and move on.
It is nearly two years after the tsunami when the novel opens, and the Barretts are still reeling from the death of 18-year-old Jake, who was traveling in Thailand when the wave hit. Bill moved out a year ago, an amicable separation; Maggie is all but sleepwalking through her days and nights, emotionally unreachable; their daughter, teenaged Aly, hides her pain beneath a good-student/good-daughter mask. Ten-year-old Stan is the only person whose life has actually improved in the past year. He suffers from dyslexia and dyspraxia (I was familiar with the first but not the second, a neurological disorder leading to coordination problems), and he is flourishing in a special-needs school rather than bullied and unhappy, as before, in a mainstream classroom.
Bill, meanwhile, has recently made a fresh start, embarking on a love affair with the widowed Carrie --- they met in a bereavement group --- and breaking the uncomfortable news to Maggie and the kids. He is torn, wanting to allow himself happiness yet determined to reassure his “old” family that he is not abandoning them. (May I just say that the title is awkward as well as slightly unfair to fathers? After all, a good chunk of the book is devoted to Bill’s love for his children and his struggle to balance his own needs and theirs.)
In a parallel story of loss and despondency, 63-year-old Kate Miller is dealing with the sudden death of Philip, her cherished second husband. She seems on the surface to be coping better than Maggie, but only just. Reluctant to pretend to a normality she doesn’t feel, she avoids friends, yet she is terribly lonely. So she takes the daring step of placing an advertisement in the newspaper: