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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Friday, 24 August 2012

When Tough Decisions are on the Menu - Helen FitzGerald & Herman Koch, 24 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Hazel McHaffie

How much responsibility should parents take for their children? And how far would you be prepared to go for those you love? When is it right to sacrifice the good of an individual for a greater good of the many? These are important questions for individuals and for society. And questions that hold a particular appeal for me right now since I'm exploring them in my current novel about organ donation and child protection. So I went along to the Spiegeltent with high hopes early on Friday morning.

But the first question that struck me once I arrived was why were so few people interested in these questions/authors? The ambience in the Spiegeltent is friendly and relaxed, coffees on tap, but only a tiny group of people attended. Was it simply too early in the morning? Or do readers not want to address such hard issues? Are there implications here for novelists like me?

The chairman, agent Jenny Brown, set a light tone to what could have been a difficult event with a quip about the similarity of the titles: The Dinner and The Donor, which led nicely into a question about the use of comedy in both books. It came naturally to both authors. Though Australian Helen Fitzgerald was formerly a criminal justice social worker, working with rapists, murderers and psychopaths, she is herself one of thirteen children. She therefore grew up with humour part of her normal currency, a reality which she took into her professional life too. Indeed, she misses the rich source of material provided by her work with criminals, now that she has become a full time novelist. Humour in his writing came easily to Dutch TV and radio producer, actor and writer Herman Koch, too, because his TV work involved comedy.

Light touches were clearly essential given the dark subject matter of both books and their largely unsympathetic, unlikeable characters. Fitzgerald's novel, The Donor, is a tense thriller about single father, Will Marion, a passive, unproductive man whom one of his girls describes as 'a rubbish dad'. He has two teenage daughters, twins, both of whom have inherited a kidney condition which means they both need a transplant. Will has two perfectly functioning kidneys. What will he do? I'd read this book before going to meet the author, so I knew it was no sentimental tear-jerker; it's tough and gritty, set in a world of drugs and violence, crime and punishment, dysfunctional families and misplaced loyalties. Having now listened to its creator I can see why.

The Dinner deals with the dark undercurrents that lie behind middle-class respectability; secrets which the families try to hide in order to preserve their images and protect their own careers. Two very different brothers, one a teacher the other a high-ranking cabinet minister, and their wives, are in a smart restaurant, exchanging polite but banal conversation. But behind the empty words lurk terrible truths, crying out for expression, and with each new course (represented by chapter breaks), civility and friendship are eroded, knives are sharpened. Because these couples harbour a devastating secret: their fifteen-year-old sons were both accountable for a single horrific act of brutality. This knowledge alone is enough to shatter the comfortable worlds of their families. But more than that, it threatens the high-flying political career of the older brother, Serge, who is ahead in the race to be the Netherlands' next prime minister. He can't afford a breath of scandal. As the evening wears on the true natures of these angry, self-serving men are revealed. Are they really so different from their sons? And where will their joint loyalties and duties take them?

Contrasting characters play an important part in both books. The Donor’s twins are summed up from an early age as 'born unhappy and stayed that way' and 'born loving life and stayed that way.' Everything in the family's records and in their diaries (which he has dipped into without their knowledge) tells Will that one has been easier to love than the other. But will that fact influence his decisions now both lives are in jeopardy and he has the power to save only one? The two brothers in the restaurant bring similar issues to their dilemma. Will their competing interests and resentments, jealousies and conflicts influence their choices now? Does one take precedence over the other? Because, if one of them goes to the police the consequences will fall on all of them.

Koch's novel was sparked by an actual event in Spain in 2005 when two boys were caught on CCTV laughing as they attacked a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM cubicle of a bank in Barcelona. They were good looking lads appearing just to have come from a tennis match, Koch observed. They didn't fit any of the stereotypes associated with delinquency. That could be my son, he thought. Do I really know my own children? And what would I do in these parents' shoes? In the Barcelona incident the teenagers were recognised immediately and arrested the same day, but in Koch's novel the boys are not identified. The parents have to decide, should they go to the police or will they rather protect their sons? And their marriages. And their jobs. And their reputations.

Fitzgerald's book stemmed from a more personal experience. Her sister-in-law developed kidney disease and her siblings were all tested for the illness and potential compatibility. Four were unhealthy and three healthy. In the event no one did offer to be a donor, but it raised the question in her head: how would you choose who to help?

Choosing between her own two children would be impossible.

The books also explore how much families - even happy ones - choose to keep secrets. Are we happier if we don't know everything about our nearest and dearest? If someone has hidden little things from me can I subsequently trust him in big matters? How should society react to the way young people are going today? Do parents really know what's best for their children? Is it a longer-term kindness to hand a young criminal over to the police? Does a criminal feel more guilty if they do not serve out a punishment for their crime?

The questions after the event further explored issues such as: Do people want to read about bad parents? Can a 'foreign writer' capture the essence of another country? How can a writer ensure a novel is not dominated by an issue? Should a student sell a kidney to pay for his education or an iPod? Would you accept a kidney from someone on China's death row?

All difficult, yet valuable, challenges for both society and writers - especially this one. But nobody asked if Helen Fitzgerald would donate one of her kidneys in the name of publicity - as someone elsewhere did! Writing the book did encourage her to become a blood donor herself, so maybe it's not such a ludicrous idea after all.

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