Crime, Fantasy and 'Tragic Real Life'

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (March 2008)

I was in WH Smiths the other day, using up what was left of the Christmas Gift tokens on something for myself.  
And I wanted something that wasn’t about Islam, or jihad; it didn’t have to be light and frothy but it did have to be interesting and/or entertaining.

I have just finished The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson which was a bit of a contrast to Global Jihad by Patrick Sookhedeo.

I was very tempted by Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford – John of Gaunt and his scandalous Duchess. I will get that eventually but I think I will wait for the paperback.

I didn’t want a diet book, or any self help book; I can still see my navel but I have little desire to gaze into it.

Local history is always good but our independent bookshop elsewhere has a better selection.

I have every Miss Silver and Brother Cadfael novel written by Patricia Wentworth and Ellis Peters. The Kay Scarpetta novels of Patricia Cornwell have degenerated into such technicalities of gore such that I gave up on the series several years ago.

The sex and shopping type of chick lit is not my cup of tea either. But the shelves went on forever and the tokens were burning a hole in my purse.

I passed the rack of crime, comedy, fantasy (my husband purchases the Pratchett and I read them after him), war, family sagas, and then I spotted a rack labelled for a genre new to me. Tragic Real Life.

Books with Madeline McCann’s beautiful face staring at me. More with (I assume child models) other beautiful girl children and titles like Punished, Abandoned and Daddy’s Little Earner. Nearly all stories of the author’s abused childhoods.

I am not sure what to make of these. 15 to 20 years ago there was a flurry of books of memoirs about ordinary people’s war experiences. I think some people felt the need to get it written down before they were too old and died. It is a subject of interest to me so I bought and read quite a few.

Of the ones I kept Kitty Hart’s Return to Auschwitz is one of the best examples I have come across in any form of how a sense of humour can be a source of support in even the worst of situations. 

Logically her book about how a 15 year old girl and her mother survived in a series of concentration camps should rank alongside “
The shocking story of a young girl forced into prostitution by her own father, and her painful journey to escape her horrific childhood and build a new life for herself”.

The women I read on later exchanging reviews of Martha Long’s story of her Dublin childhood, Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes are most enthusiastic about it, calling the book gripping and “
I could not put it down” “the best book I have ever read”. Nearly all of them are clamoring for a sequel. “I hope there is a second book from martha long” says one “as i want to read it NOW! excellent!” Others do pay tribute to the author, “her wit and courage is truly humbling.”

A woman standing next to me in Smiths was in no doubt either. She looked like a chav at first glance - pink and grey tracksuit, yellow hair with dark roots, bright hooped earrings but she had her opinion.

“It’s not right”, she said, “being entertained by other people’s misery. Feeding off their trouble. It’s waddyyercall it? Voyeurism. I think it’s wrong”. And she moved away proving that one should not judge a book by its cover.

I think she has a point. At what point do these true tragedies cease to be a genuine autobiography and become continuation of the abuse? Like the witness statements of abused children that became currency in prisons, passed around from the defendant to every other child abuser in the place. Eventually the regulations had to be changed so that while defendants continued to be entitled to see their trial papers they had to be allowed access only prior to their trials and under supervision.

Knowledge of the horror of child abuse and the damage that it will do is a matter of public interest. Life isn’t all fun and frivolity; sweeping such things under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t happen is not helpful. Writing their story down may well be beneficial to the abused person. Getting a vicarious thrill from an action thriller or a sweet romance (or even a saucy one) is harmless. There a thrill to be had by some from the true life stories of abuse, but does the retelling of those stories in this format go beyond the public interest and verge into the harmful?

My gut reaction is that it does, and as the lady in the grey trackies said, it makes voyeurs of us. 

Eventually I bought Whitethorn Woods the latest by Maeve Binchy. Which was also a disappointment but for entirely different reasons.
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