The price of perfection

Caro Ramsay
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Caro Ramsay's new novel is about the complex issues raised by IVF and surrogacy


I consider myself very fortunate in how my day job informs my writing. Being an osteopath, I have a wealth of knowledge literally at my fingertips, and patients are always very happy to give me the benefit of their professional expertise as I give them the benefit of mine.

Also, I do know how to hurt people! I enjoy my little tutorials for crime writers called Breaking Bones, which explains the "physiology of injury". At Harrogate this year, my editor is appearing on stage with me, and I have a cricket bat.

Seeing so many members of the public and chatting to them about everyday things gives me a sense of what people are experiencing and talking about. The Suffering of Strangers is informed by discussions of the availability and expense of IVF while newspapers were headlining the death of a baby from neglect. I met a horrifically overworked social worker who, like all her colleagues, was stressed to her wits' end, knowing what needs to be done but not having the resources to do it.

My most abiding memory from researching this book was a quote from one of the police officers who attended the scene of the baby's death. He reported that there was a baby-sized navy blue sailor suit hanging up in the wardrobe. It was the only item of baby clothing in the flat. It still had a price label on. It had never been worn.

From attending lectures at the Scottish Medico Legal Society, I get a taste of scenarios where the law is not keeping up with society. What is said there is bound by confidentiality of course, but the overall themes are of huge interest. For instance, it came as a shock to me how many times "death" has had to be redefined as a legal entity. It used to be the cessation of heartbeat, but hearts are now stopped routinely during surgery. And so it is with surrogacy, and questions such as whom the child belongs to at the point of birth. What happens if the contract is for "a perfect child" and the baby is born "less than perfect"?

Any time demand outstrips supply, the door is open for criminality, and that was the basis for The Suffering of Strangers. I've always believed that good crime fiction is the dynamic between good and good: it creates much more tension if the reader has sympathy with both sides. I also think it makes for a much richer narrative. In my novel, one detective, Anderson, is a family man with liberal attitudes who believes that mothers who are vulnerable and struggling socially should be in receipt of help and guidance. Whereas Costello, the single female cop from a broken home in Glasgow, believes that if a mother can't look after her child then the child should be removed from her. The portrayal of the social worker who can see both sides of the argument, and who spends her professional life doing paperwork and hitting her head against brick wall after brick wall, struck a chord with those who work in the field.

I suppose the story is summed up by the audience reaction when the first few pages of The Suffering of Strangers are read out loud. A young mum, Roberta, driving her constantly crying six week old baby around trying to get him to sleep. All the mothers in the audience nod in empathy. Roberta stops the car outside her local shop, and even though she takes care to keep a look out, when she returns the baby is gone. The audience gasps. Then Roberta's car is found round the corner, and the baby seat is still there - but the baby is not hers, and has Downs Syndrome. Relief is replaced by a flood of conflicting emotions.

I've never wanted to be a writer that beats a drum about a particular cause. I've always wanted to be the writer that kept you amused while waiting in an airport, but it was difficult to write this book without hearing the voices of both the detectives, for once in agreement that disabled lives matter. They are not children of a lesser God.

I was so thrilled when the new Cannongate imprint Black Thorn circulated this book to a wider audience, sparking a debate about the way society is moving in our search for perfection, and how it may rob us of a little bit of our humanity.

The Suffering of Strangers by Caro Ramsay is out from Black Thorn Books, the new crime imprint from Canongate. Caro is appearing with Simon Brett at Steyning Books today (16 July) and at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this Friday (19 July).

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