Thursday 19 April 2018

A missed opportunity to shine light on tragic case

Ellis O'Hanlon

Savita: The Tragedy That Shook A Nation

Kitty Holland

Transworld Ireland, €10.99

Kitty Holland was the obvious choice to write the first book on Savita Halappanavar, the Indian dentist whose death from an infection in a Galway maternity hospital last year captured the world's headlines and continues to be deeply felt.

She was the reporter who first broke the story in the Irish Times; she has earned the trust of Savita's widower Praveen; earlier this month, Holland was also named Journalist of the Year at the National Newspapers of Ireland awards for her work on the story.

Who is this book for, though? That's the trickier question. For an international audience, unfamilair with the details of the story, it would be a solid if workmanlike account of the tragedy as it unfolded and the political ramifications afterwards – but would they be interested enough to read it? For Irish readers, who've followed every twist and turn of the debate, it feels more like a rehash of things they already know – so why would they read it at all? Somewhere between those two positions exists a space where a book worthy of its subject could be written. But is this the right book?

It certainly contains extensive chunks of material already in the public domain. The gaps are fleshed out with interviews with a number of doctors, politicians, fellow journalists, pro-choice and pro-life campaigners. But anything new? Any insights particular to this book and author that a reader couldn't find for free from a host of other sources on Google? Not really. In a way it's more disappointing than that.

Savita is a book which already feels obsolete. It was written during May and June, after the HSE report into her death was published but before the HIQA report which confirmed that this was not so much an abortion story as a tragedy about the mismanagement of sepsis. Never has a book so badly needed a second updated edition before the first edition even hits the shelves.

The abortion angle is crucial to this question, because it was Holland's front page story for the Irish Times which did more than anything else to send out the message that this was a straightforward morality tale about a woman who died after being denied an abortion by backwoods Catholic moralists.

Two pages are devoted to showing how the story whizzed around the world, as if it really matters when Caitlin Moran tweeted the news to her followers; but Holland is coyly defensive about criticism of the way the story was spun, despatching the prosecution case in a mere two paragraphs, the second of which reads in full: "'Woman denied a termination' dies in hospital,' it said. A woman had died in hospital; her husband said she had been denied a termination. The headline was correct in fact and in spirit."

That's somewhat disingenuous. The headline in the first sentence clearly sought to imply a causal connection between the two events rather than the mere correlation which is outlined in the second. That's why the story had such an impact. "Rarely had a headline been so carefully worded," Holland insists, but doesn't seem to see that this is the very problem, or that her subsequent treatment of pro-life opinion in this book might suffer from the same blinkered certainty.

Whilst admitting that "those against abortion to whom I spoke voiced sincere concerns that it was a human rights issue," she still bats them away with the words: "There was also a sense that they viewed abortion as something some women who just couldn't be bothered to be pregnant did." Is that really a fair assessment of their views?

Here is where a book from Holland might have been revealing – in forensically exploring her thought process at the time and her considered view in hindsight, but she doesn't seem to want to go there. She's a curiously unreflective writer, more interested in lumpen narrative than analysis; in the who, what, when and where of a story rather than the how or why. Still, it's hard not to notice that one word is omitted entirely from the foreword to the book, written by former President Mary Robinson. That word is "abortion". Honestly asking why it isn't there, when a year earlier there was no word more widely in circulation, would have made a much more profound book.

Sunday Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment