Little Disasters by Sarah Vaughan

Published by Simon & Schuster

The last thing paediatrician Liz expects when she starts her night-time A&E shift is to be faced with the injured baby of one of her best friends, Jess. The junior doctor on call is inexperienced and nervous, and wary of voicing suspicion. But Jess is proving uncharacteristically cagey, the injury sustained just doesn’t tally with the explanation for it and Liz has no choice, both professionally and morally, to report the case to the relevant authorities.

Jess is of course aghast, as is her husband, Liz’s husband and their mutual friends. But cases such as these are sensitive and various tentative testimonies, both official and voiced off-the-record among each other, indicate that Jess hasn’t been herself since the baby was born ten months before. Could it be a case that this mother, previously thought of as the most devoted and most naturally maternally inclined of them all, snapped under the pressure? Could it be something more sinister than that?

I approached this book as the marketing team intended me to, thinking it was a pacey thriller or mystery. The title is reminiscent of Big Little Lies or Little Fires Everywhere or similar, zeitgeisty books that have been adapted for the screen. The recommendations on the cover are from popular mystery writers Lucy Foley (The Hunting Party and The Guest List) and Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train). But even with a somewhat clumsily tacked on twist at the end this is essentially neither a thriller or a mystery, but a sympathetically handled domestic drama focusing on one of the last taboos to be covered in fiction.

At the centre of Little Disasters is motherhood. Liz and Jess have been friends for a decade, since they joined the same parenting group. Two other women from the group also remain in their circle, and their families are close. Some have had more children since of similar age, professional progression has been made despite the tribulations of motherhood, marriages have since broken down. Ten years is a relatively short time but a lot can happen within the timeframe.

After the baby’s admission to Intensive Care for a skull fracture, Liz is wracked with guilt over not being there for Jess as much as she could have been after Betsey’s birth. She knows that Jess’s second son Frankie is something of a handful, but along with the other friends in their group has been of the opinion that super stay-at-home mum Jess takes hyperactive children in her stride. It’s only with hindsight that she realised that a third child can change everything, and not always for the better.

In addition to Jess’s predicament, which has her investigated by social services and for which Liz feels somewhat responsible for, Liz has her own, difficult mother to deal with. They have a tremulous history, in which Liz and her brother suffered from significant neglect at the hands of a distant and aloof parent, and now her mother is at death’s door thanks in part to a lifetime of alcohol abuse and extreme eating habits. A vague childhood memory brought up by Jess’s case begins to niggle, which is another conundrum for Liz to solve while also dealing with her friend’s situation.

As is customary, the story is told through a number of perspectives; Liz speaking from her own point of view and Jess, her husband Ed and Liz’s mother’s stories being told via the third person. Alongside the main narrative there are throwbacks to earlier times that explain certain relationships and uncover everyone’s true opinions of each other. The characterisation is good and the depiction of post-natal mental health issues quite bold and stark, as are the jarring accounts of the fear and anxiety that can often overwhelm new parents, which certainly adds gravitas to the story and effectively provides food for thought over the whole area of pre and early motherhood.

Which makes the twist at the end feel almost inappropriate. Although it provides that element of mystery that the reader going in to the story was expecting, and it ties up loose ends scattered through the narrative, I wonder if the overall story could have done without it, strengthening the message underlying the tough subject matter. The well-told story about the unbearable distress that can sometimes accompany motherhood would have stood up admirably on its own.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 20 05 20

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