The Question Is…

I write novels which are more concerned with motivation and effect that with who, when and where, because, for me, characters provide the central element of a good story. Just to be conventional, I am willing to concede that a novel also needs a plot, to carry the reader from A to B, preferably by a rollercoaster of hills and troughs. But I like to start with an underlying question that triggers the enterprise and gets me wondering.

In my first novel, A Time For Silence (published by Honno Press, 2012), the plot involves a young woman, in the 21st century, discovering a family secret from the middle of the 20th century, and her investigations, discoveries and misconceptions are contrasted with the story of what really happened, back in the 30s and 40s.

The question that inspired the plot was this. Is it ever possible to understand an historical event, whether it’s the court of the Tudors, the mean streets of Victorian London, or your own grandparent’s lives, if you can only see it through your own imagination, shaped by your own education, economics, class, religion, expectation, social mores and language? I’ve read many historical novels where the characters cannot help having modern views and attitudes, no matter what velvets and brocades they wear.

In my second novel, Motherlove (published by Honno Press 2015), the question that got me going was raised by the case of María Eugenia Sampallo Barragán. Maria Eugenia is an Argentinian. She’d known from childhood that she was adopted, but finally she discovered that she had been taken, at birth, from a clandestine torture centre, where her birth parents, communists, were ‘disappeared’ by the military government. She had been handed over as a prize to a couple who were supporters of the regime. Maria Eugenia made the world news because she was taking her adoptive parents to court.

The interest, for me, had nothing to do with gory Argentinian politics. I wondered what her relationship with her adoptive parents had been like. Surely, I thought, it must have been unhappy, because if she had grown up secure, as their loving and beloved daughter, she would have been torn to shreds by the idea of taking them to court, no matter how awful the truth turned out to be.

My assumption proved to be correct: Maria Eugenia had had an unhappy childhood and had left home resenting her adoptive parents. By contrast, some of the other adopted children of the ‘disappeared,’ who loved their adoptive parents, didn’t even want to know who their birth parents were.

My book, Motherlove, has nothing whatsoever to do with Argentina, or Maria Eugenia’s story, but it does concern two girls who find they are not the natural daughters of the women they call Mother. One is happy with the family she has, and couldn’t give a toss about the truth. The other finds that the genetic confusion merely reinforces a sense of alienation that she already feels.

The question is – does the love of a child for a mother have anything at all to do with genetic bonds, and can it simply be snapped in two if those bonds turn out to be an illusion?

I hope that readers manage to unearth the underlying questions in my novels. I am always delighted to read comments from people who like my work, but the comments which give me the greatest satisfaction are the ones that tell me the reader was left thinking.

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