Wednesday 25 April 2018

An issue-led take on guilt and the vaccine debate

Fiction: Keep you Safe, Melissa Hill, HarperCollins, ­paperback, 406 pages, €18.20

Both sides: Melissa Hill's book will prompt debate
Both sides: Melissa Hill's book will prompt debate
Keep you Safe by Melissa Hill

Lorraine Courtney

There's no doubting the emotiveness of the subject bestselling author Melissa Hill has now chosen to write her latest book about: the MMR vaccine. Although vaccination has saved millions of lives, it remains controversial, subject to scares, driven by political imperatives, testing our belief in science and our own judgment.

The story centres around two five-year-old girls, Rosie and Clara. Neither has been vaccinated. Rosie is very allergic to the gelatin components in live vaccines. She had a life-threatening reaction to her first jab so single mom, Kate, decided against vaccinating her again. She hopes that herd immunity will keep diseases away, and her little girl safe.

Clara hasn't been vaccinated because her mother, a successful mommy blogger called Madeleine, doesn't trust the science. The two girls have just started primary school in the same class. One day, telltale red spots appear on Clara's chest, and on Rosie's a few days later. Both girls have caught the measles.

While Clara gets over the illness fairly easily, Rosie worsens and ends up in hospital in a critical condition that degenerates rapidly into viral encephalitis. She's placed in a coma and her recovery is uncertain. Eventually she wakes up with brain damage.

Just before the two girls got sick, Madeleine and her family had been to Florida where Clara may have come in contact with the measles. Kate decides to sue Madeleine.

Sometimes the storyline can feel a bit too forced and didactic but Hill gives both sides in the vaccine debate a voice. She shows that sometimes people do things with the best of intentions, but bad things happen.

During the court case, Madeleine's sister-in-law makes her case for vaccine suspicion. She tells the courtroom about her autistic son: "I was facing this in real life - my everyday life. One day my child was fine, the next he wasn't - and the only thing outside of the norm that had happened in between was the MMR vaccination." Readers, there's a mighty twist.

The responsibility of parenthood can be overwhelming. It can stir suspicion and concern that supplant reason among reasonable people. Madeleine was a little bit more interesting to me as a mom. Guilt is the albatross around modern mothers' necks. They traipse around, slumped and bowed, as it weighs down on shoulders, tuts and pecks at their heads.

Madeleine is not a monster. She's not a bad mother even if she is sceptical of vaccines. Rather, after years at the coalface of parenthood, she has shrugged off that albatross and won respect for her blog's honesty where she writes about real things like taking her children abroad during term and dropping them occasionally as babies.

This book is classic Hill, if a little more grown up than her previous novels. It's light, it's dark, it's predictable, and it looks at women's lives. It's perfect fodder to prompt a heated vaccine debate at your next book club.

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