Wednesday, January 10, 2007

From a local author...

“In 1845 a killer stalked the great maternity hospitals of Europe and North America … Mothers and babies were slaughtered in great suffering on a monumental scale by this mass murderer. The name given to this assassin was puerperal fever… [or] childbed fever.”

This powerful novel recounts the history of the struggle to control the devastating disease known as “childbed fever” – the horrific disease that killed thousands of women and their babies across Europe and North America.

Set in 19th Century Vienna, John Piper’s book is based on the true story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a young Hungarian obstetrician. Through the eyes of a fictional young woman (Charlotte) who is having her baby in hospital, we witness the squalor and overcrowding – and we feel the terror experienced by the mothers and mothers-to-be. Charlotte, herself, contracts the dreaded disease.

Told with passion and a meticulous eye for historical accuracy, this novel describes the appalling conditions in which doctors and nurses worked in the latter half of the 19th Century and shows how Semmelweis overcame the ignorance and bigotry in the medical profession at the time to find the cause of (and a cure for) this horrendous illness.

Dr John Piper NB, BS, FRCS was born in Essex. He read medicine at the University of London, trained in surgery at the Royal Free Hospital and worked as a consultant surgeon in hospitals in England until 1977 and then in Iran, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In 1985 he created the Department of Surgery in the new Manapo Hospital in the Black South African Homeland of Qwagwa.
Dr Piper now lives in Portugal.

MOTHER KILLERS by John Piper can be pre-ordered at Magna Carta Bookshop for 25.50€ (hardback) and will be available from 22nd February 2007.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Keeping Faity by Jodi Picoult

Reviewed by
Hayley Jones

Unlike the better-known My Sister's Keeper and The Pact, the courtroom doesn't assume a major part in Keeping Faith and even draws itself into question. How many times have you heard something along the lines of "God has no place in a courtroom?" Have you considered how strange that is, considering that witnesses are expected to swear on the Bible?

Jodi Picoult throws up all kinds of religious and spiritual questions in this novel, allowing the reader to muse over and debate them as much as the characters do. Keeping Faith certainly displays Picoult's talent for portraying complex issues without dictating to her audience.

Faith White is a normal seven-year-old girl in many respects - she loves to play on the swings and scribble with crayons - but she becomes a media attraction almost overnight when she starts, apparently, having visions of God and develops wounds that can only currently be explained as stigmata.

What makes her situation even more interesting is that Faith knows nothing about religion, let alone Christianity. Her mother, Mariah, is a non-practicing Jew and her father a non-practicing Episcopalian: Faith has never seen a Bible, yet she quotes verses from it.Mariah can hardly believe this is happening, but she knows her daughter's not a liar and she is extremely concerned about the psychological and physical symptoms that Faith is displaying. Her priority is Faith's safety, which is difficult to take care of when a range of cult members, TV crews and sick people hoping for Faith to cure them are camping on their driveway.

One person particularly determined to prove that Faith is a fraud is Ian Fletcher, a tele-atheist who is determined to prove that all religious 'miracles' are fakes and ends up getting more involved than he means to...Mariah is still reeling from her divorce - initiated by her husband, Colin, after she and Faith catch him in the bedroom with another woman - and insult is added to injury when Colin announces that he wants custody of Faith. Mariah not only has to face criticism from the media, but also a very public trial that sees Colin dragging up darker times in her past in order to prove that she is harming Faith and somehow causing the hallucinations.

Trust is a major issue in Keeping Faith. Particularly poignant for me was seeing how Mariah's past gets thrown up and used against her, even though she's now a very different person, allowing Colin to betray her even further. It questions whether skeptics are objectively in pursuit of the truth or whether they simply can't let themselves trust and have faith. You may even find that you question your own beliefs and opinions - another thing that Picoult is skilled at.
I never thought I'd read a novel that incorporates religious ecstasy, mental illness and potential child abuse, but it actually works really well. It's different from Picoult's other novels and, despite first being published in 1999 in the US (2006 in Britain), it's every bit as accomplished as her later novels. The writing is strong and heartfelt, managing to portray Mariah with both vulnerability and Lioness-style protectiveness.

Although Mariah and her family are extremely 'normal', I think this is necessary, as too flamboyant or unique a character would seem unbelievable. Mariah is certainly more 'human' than a lot of Picoult's female protagonists. Picoult also flirts with the notion of 'unreliable narrator', which creates the opportunity for further debate and is done subtly and cleverly, so it's up to the reader to decide which of the characters - if any - to believe.

I think that Mariah is one of the most fully-formed, realistic characters that Picoult has written and Keeping Faith is certainly refreshingly different. Even if you hate Picoult's other novels, I recommend that you give this a try: it doesn't conform to the formula in several of her other novels and it's not so reminiscent of a courtroom drama. I also think this is the kind of book you will either love or hate and I'm happy that, for me, it's the former. Whether you're an atheist, a militant believer or (like most of the characters) an agnostic, there is little to upset you here as long as you read it with an open mind.

Picoult is careful not to tread on too many toes, although she doesn't sacrifice story for political correctness. Unlike many contemporary authors, who focus on family and relationships and little else, Picoult isn't afraid to study the major issues that dramatically affect these relationships. Stigmata and religious visions are unusual topics to address, but Picoult pulls it off without it seeming too unrealistic and with a lot of flair.