It’s an immense pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for Mother and Child by Annie Murray, published on 5th September in hardback, but now available for kindle, in paperback, and as an audiobook – published by Pan Macmillan, with all proceeds going to the Bhopal Medical Appeal. My thanks to Kelly at #LoveBooksTours for the invitation and support – and I will embarrass her by mentioning that I did notice from Annie’s Facebook page that Kelly offered to organise the blog tour free of charge. My advance reading e-copy was provided free, but I have since purchased a copy for my bookshelves.
Do you remember Bhopal, I wonder? I do, and remember its impact and the unimaginable number of lives lost – but I’m ashamed that until I read a little more widely, I had no idea that the devastating industrial disaster had such horrifying lasting effects. You might want to take a look at some of the photos in the scrapbook on Annie’s website – and to find out more, do take a look at the charity’s website, or this excellent (and moving), video from Action for Bhopal. Before we look at the book, I’d also like to share this note from the author…
Soon after midnight on the morning of December 3rd, 1984, what is still recognized as the world’s worst ever industrial disaster took place in the city of Bhopal in central India.
A plant built to manufacture pesticide, owned by the American Union Carbide Corporation, leaked 40 tons of methyl-isocyanate gas, one of the most lethally toxic gases in the industry, over the surrounding neighbourhood. This was a poor area consisting mainly of slum housing, some of it leaning right up against the factory wall.
People woke, coughing and choking. Panic broke out as many tried to flee for their lives. As they ran, their bodies broke down with toxic poisoning, eyes burning, frothing at the mouth. Women miscarried pregnancies. Many people flung themselves in the river and by dawn, the streets were littered with thousands of bodies. It is estimated that 10,000 died that first night and the death toll continued, within weeks, to a total of about 25 000. Many more have died since. There are still reckoned to be 150 000 chronically ill survivors. Their plight was not helped by the fact that Union Carbide would not release the name of an antidote to a poison that they did not want to admit was as dangerous as it really was.
The plant, making less profit than had been hoped, was being run down for closure and was in poor condition. Not one of the safety systems was working satisfactorily. In addition, the original design of the factory had been ‘Indianized’ – in other words built more cheaply than would be expected of such a plant in a western country.
This was 35 years ago. In 1989, a paltry amount of compensation was eventually paid by Union Carbide who did everything a large corporation can do to evade taking responsibility. Their comment was “$500 is about enough for an Indian.” That was $500 to last for the rest of the life of a man who could no longer work to look after his family.
The sickness and suffering from ‘that night’ goes on in those who survived to this day. What is less well known about Bhopal however, is that even before the 1984 gas leak, the company had been dumping toxic waste in solar evaporation ponds. The lining used was about like you would use in a garden water feature. This in a country of heavy rains and floods. In the early 80s, people started to notice how bad their water supply tasted. Cows were dying.
Union Carbide closed the plant. They never cleared the site, which still stands in an area of highly toxic soil and water. The water supply in that area is so contaminated that water has to be brought in from outside. In 2001 Union Carbide was bought by the Dow Chemical Company, and is, from 2018, now DowDuPont. Despite having acquired all the assets of Union Carbide they are not prepared to accept its liabilities and clear up the site.
In the months after the gas leak in 1984, the nearby Hamidia hospital started to see children born with birth defects more horrific than any they had witnessed before. These days, because of gas- and also water-affected parents, the rate of birth defects is now reaching into a third, soon to be a fourth generation. The main parallel with the kind of extreme toxic effects would be with the children of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The only free care in this impoverished neighbourhood for people suffering from the effects of gas poisoning, or to help with very severely handicapped children, is from the Bhopal Medical Appeal. It is to them that all the money from Mother and Child is going.
In the book, you can read more about what happened in Bhopal and about how the book itself came to be written.
So, let’s take a closer look at the book. Quite a few years ago, I remember reading and very much enjoying Chocolate Girls by Annie Murray – so long ago, I’m ashamed to say, that I can’t track down my review to share. I don’t read historical sagas very often, and sadly I haven’t taken the opportunity to revisit Annie’s writing, however much I would have liked to – but I do know her books are loved by so many. But I did read the wonderful A New Map of Love by her alter ego Abi Oliver, having bought a hardback copy in a charity auction (for Grenfell, I think) – and the author joined me here on Being Anne with a guest post to celebrate its release in April 2017. Apologies again for the absence of a review to share, but I read it with my book club and I’ve never got round to writing one – but I really loved it, and I’m faintly amazed (and just a little disappointed) that we haven’t yet seen a TV dramatisation with Martin Clunes as George. So – Mother and Child…
Mother and Child by Sunday Times bestseller Annie Murray is a moving story of loss, friendship and hope over two generations . . .
Jo and Ian’s marriage is hanging by a thread. One night almost two years ago, their only child, Paul, died in an accident that should never have happened. They have recently moved to a new area of Birmingham, to be near Ian’s mother Dorrie who is increasingly frail. As Jo spends more time with her mother-in-law, she suspects Dorrie wants to unburden herself of a secret that has cast a long shadow over her family.
Haunted by the death of her son, Jo catches a glimpse of a young boy in a magazine who resembles Paul. Reading the article, she learns of a tragedy in India . . . But it moves her so deeply, she is inspired to embark on a trip where she will learn about unimaginable pain and suffering.
As Jo learns more, she is determined to do her own small bit to help. With the help of new friends, Jo learns that from loss and grief, there is hope and healing in her future.
I really wanted to read and review this book because of the cause it was supporting, and because I knew I’d enjoy the author’s writing. But I didn’t read the blurb in advance and, based only on the cover, I was rather expecting it to be one of the sagas she writes so well – I’ll admit I really hadn’t thought through how the Bhopal disaster might be referenced. Instead, I was rather delighted to find it was a contemporary story – albeit with echoes of the past – and the kind of book I unfailingly enjoy.
The key character is Jo, struggling desperately to move forward two years after the death of her near-adult son: her husband Ian is finding life difficult too, but suffering in that different way that men often do, and the cracks on their marriage are beginning to widen. We learn more about son Paul through Jo’s reflections and memories – the realities of their lives together slowly revealed. As a portrait of sudden loss and the impact of grief, it’s simply stunning – and by the time Jo realises that her house move hasn’t been enough to give her the healing she needs, she already has a very firm hold on your heart.
She finds friendship and support through a group of women at a local yoga class – a wonderful group of all types, ages and backgrounds, each with their own slowly unfolded stories and their hidden sadnesses and secrets. And while Jo doesn’t leave her memories and grief behind – and really doesn’t want to – the women focus on the shared goal of raising money for Bhopal. The impetus is a photograph in a magazine – the sadness of another mother’s son, a child who has seen more suffering that he should – and the joyous experience of their fundraising effort is followed by a pilgrimage to Bhopal to see its impact first-hand.
It’s a story that swirls with the commonality of women’ experiences – both through the group of friends, and with the mothers of Bhopal. But there are other echoes and resonances, through the memories of her mother-in-law Dorrie: her story is set in Birmingham’s industrial past, its carelessness for the safety of the workers providing another rich layer of parallels with the more recent tragedy.
I really loved this book, and particularly its diverse cast of female characters – the way their stories were built and layered, the way their relationships were developed. Emotionally, it’s quite a roller-coaster – but the moments of tears and sadness are balanced by others of sheer unadulterated joy. And the book’s ending? I thought it was absolutely perfect.
I would urge everyone to buy this book to support the Bhopal Medical Appeal… but then please, do read it, because the story and its telling is just wonderful.
About the author
Annie Murray was born in Berkshire and read English at St John’s College, Oxford. Her first ‘Birmingham’ novel, Birmingham Rose, hit The Times bestseller list when it was published in 1995. She has subsequently written many other successful novels, including The Bells of Bournville Green, sequel to the bestselling Chocolate Girls, and A Hopscotch Summer. Annie has four children and lives near Reading.