An engrossing read (5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by St Martin’s Press, September 2013
I read the Kindle edition. The paperback edition is 352 pages.
After I got a great eBook deal on some of Diane Chamberlain’s books a couple of weeks ago through a certain high street supermarket’s website, I’ve found myself readily absorbed in her work once more. I read quite a lot of her novels a few years back, then for some reason fell completely behind, so it’s been great catching up on the ones I’ve missed out on. The Lost Daughter, which I read only last week, was a brilliant read, so I was looking forward into diving into this one too. Ultimately, I enjoyed this one even more so than that!
Necessary Lies is a thoroughly thought-provoking piece of fiction that poses some very ethical dilemmas and delves into a dark spot in America’s history. Based on true events of half a century ago, it explores the eugenics programme in the US, state-mandated sterilisations of those people deemed to be incapable of raising children, either due to poverty, mental retardation or illness. Whether sterilised by choice, forced or coerced, an estimated 7,600 North Carolinian’s were put through this unimaginable procedure between 1929 and 1974.
These harrowing events are told through young sisters Ivy and Mary Ella Hart, brought up in impoverished surroundings in rural North Carolina. At seventeen and perceived to be suffering from mental illness, Mary Ella is already a mother to Baby William and unbeknownst to her, has already been sterilised without her consent (she was told she had an appendectomy following William’s birth). Ivy and Mary Ella are on state welfare and cared for by their grandmother, when new social worker Jane Forrester comes into their lives. At just twenty-two, Jane is horrified by what she encounters in some of the poor families and even more so when she discovers the true nature of the eugenics programme and how those high up in the state board try to justify it and who they have on their list as the next prospects for the programme. When fifteen-year-old Ivy also falls pregnant and Jane’s colleagues declare she too must be sterilised, Jane has to decide whether or not to help her and her baby, or fall in line with what she knows to be morally wrong.
This is actually quite a difficult book to do justice to in a review. It was an incredibly well-written, poignant novel about something which is so hard for me to understand. Reading about it, you cannot believe that these things happened and that people were forced to be sterilised against their will, but Chamberlain explores the subject so well. As a former social worker herself, you can tell that her research has been impeccable and she wants to do the story justice. Telling the story through Ivy, only fifteen, poor and epileptic and without the ability to make her own choices as she is not deemed to be an adult was gut-wrenching. Ivy is perceived to be intellectually disabled, like her sister, when in actuality she is the only person holding the family together. I fell in love with her and her distinctive voice immediately.
From the outset you empathise with so many of the characters within the book- those that are struggling to get by with a lack of any kind of finance and are grateful for the smallest handout, those who are persecuted against because of the colour of their skin… it is so difficult to comprehend that such disturbing events happened barely sixty years ago and is genuinely heartbreaking to read about at times. I cared for Jane too, a newlywed desperate to also have a career yet a person who became emotionally involved with the two sisters and wanting to do the right thing by them. Her downfall (if you could even call it that) was that she cared too much in a society where most others would-and did- turn the other way, including her colleagues. At that time, the world could have done with a few more ‘Jane’s,’ that’s for sure.
The book is admittedly quite slow-burning at the start, though this is a case with a lot of Chamberlain’s novels. Once introduced to all of the predominant characters and their situations however, I quickly became engrossed in it. Soon I was on that small tobacco plantation in Grace County, feeling the bare soil beneath my feet like Ivy and immersed in the sweltering summer heat. Atmospheric, emotional, tense and with some remarkably well-crafted twists, this was a book that I read in one sitting and was practically perfect- not something I say very often about the stories I read but something that I feel is justified in this instance.
This is definitely one of my top ten reads of this year and if you haven’t read a book by Diane Chamberlain before, would be a superb place to start. Highly recommended for fans of Jodi Picoult or Heather Gudenkauf.