A long time ago, one of my children was diagnosed with a rare cancer. He was a thirteen-month-old infant with gray-blue eyes and skin on his temples as soft as velvet. He had an infectious, mischievous laugh and perfect small hands that would grip yours hotly and tightly.
Early on in his grueling treatment I left the hospital one morning to visit a local supermarket to buy some supplies. There was no shop or restaurant on-site for parents to use, even though we camped by our children’s bedsides day and night.
The walk to the supermarket was a welcome break from the pediatric oncology ward and the institutional machine that is hospital life. The movement felt good, the fresh air felt good, the freedom felt good. For a few minutes.
As I walked the aisles of the supermarket, I experienced a numbing wave of disorientation at the sight of the other shoppers moving purposefully between the rows of products packaged in hues that were oversaturated and overstimulating to my ward-worn eyes. I was acutely aware that these people didn’t know where I had been ten minutes before or what I had seen. As I stood—probably reeking of despair, as my hair and my clothes had surely absorbed the smells of the hospital— I realized that my son’s illness and treatment had comprehensively destabilized me. But if you had glanced at me, you’d have seen nothing more than an ordinary youngish woman contemplating the sweet-smelling shelves of bakery goods. You would never have known how the fear I felt silted my mouth, coursed through my blood abrasively like grains of sand, and whitened the tips of my shaking fingers, which were well hidden under the cuffs of my coat.
I bought nothing. I left the store and returned to the hospital. I raced up the stairs and along the corridors to my son’s room. I leaned into his crib and smoothed down the silken hair on his head. I traced the curve of his ear with my fingertip and watched the rise and fall of his chest while my husband went out instead of me.
After that, during all the months while my son was gravely ill and enduring treatment, I avoided public spaces where life’s carousel kept turning so flagrantly and I fled the cheap sympathy offered by those who love a victim. I felt altered, as if I could never navigate my life by the same compass again. I felt wounded—whether mortally or not, I wasn’t sure then.
I was drawn to safer places: family and friends who didn’t judge, who didn’t sugarcoat, who were extraordinary enough to have the stamina for us as we put on a brave face for them and fell apart in front of them in turns. People’s compassion helped up to a point, but my emotional wounds were salved most gently and effectively by something unlikely.
By chance I came across a sculpture called the Pazzi Madonna. It was created by the Italian artist Donatello almost six hundred years ago. It’s a carved marble relief depicting Mary and Jesus. The religious aspect did not matter to me.
What mattered was the power of its portrayal of a mother and her child. Seen in profile, the mother’s forehead leans gently on her baby’s. Their eyes connect, his hand reaches upward to clutch the scarf at her neck, her arms enfold him, and his body curves to hers. She is his protector. The relief is carved from unyielding marble, but it couldn’t be more delicate or fluid in its expression. There is nothing else to it apart from a carved square frame, cutting her off at the waist, as if we glimpse them through a window. The baby’s toes rest on the sill.
The image spoke volumes to me across the centuries. In its simplicity, it absolved me for feeling such grinding sorrow and it told me that my ferocious feelings for my son as he suffered were acceptable and appropriate and somehow true. It did so because it told me a story about fundamental things, about a common humanity that lies at the core of each of us. The events of Odd Child Out play out in my home city of Bristol. My main characters live there, and it’s where their worlds collide. They share a home city, but on the surface of it little else. Their disparate experiences and situations create tension as the story unfolds. As I wrote, I considered what else they might have in common. Their flaws were the first thing to spring to mind; these are the nuts and bolts of fiction, after all. Some of my characters also share a feeling of being outside the “norm” of society, just as I did that day in the supermarket. I remembered Donatello’s sculpture. I thought about how the fundamental emotional needs for my main characters in Odd Child Out are the same. These people may not always be compassionate or fair or even likable at times, but they love and are loved; they crave affection and deserve our understanding and empathy.
Every day as I sat down to write Odd Child Out, I thought about how crucial the quality of empathy is when writing fiction. Treating your characters with respect and humanity is essential to developing insight into their complexities, and this felt especially important as I wrote about the Mahad family, whose life experience is at the furthest remove from my own of any character I’ve written about before, and was therefore the most challenging to imagine. I hope I’ve done them and my other characters justice. You as reader will be the judge of that.
And if empathy is an important tool for writers, I firmly believe it should guide us in life also. In our messy modern-day society, it feels essential.
My son is well now. He is thriving. I shall always remember the mother and child in Donatello’s sculpture and how they helped me through the dark days.