Sunday, 25 August 2013

Book review: Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

I devoured this book in a day it was that good! Set in North Carolina in 1960 it tells a compelling story of a novice social worker, Jane, and two poor families living and working on a tobacco farm who become her first clients. The book alternates between the first person narratives of Jane and 15-year-old Ivy. Chamberlain writes effectively in each voice which serves to further accentuate the differences between well-off Jane and poverty-stricken Ivy who lives with her elderly grandmother, her older sister Mary Ella and her illegitimate nephew Baby William. 

The backdrop for the book is the unbelievably true story of North Carolina's eugenics programme, which saw thousands of people sterilised, many without their knowledge, and many of whom who were either institutionalised or simply on welfare. For some, sterilisation was welcomed, like Lita in the book who has 5 children, particularly since birth control was not as commonly available as it is today. Necessary Lies cleverly weaves this into your consciousness as about-to-be-married Jane pays a humiliating visit to the doctor to request the pill. After an intimate examination where the male doctor verifies her virginity (!!), she plucks up the courage to make her request and the doctor says he will need her husband's permission first! 

More shockingly however, is the case of 17-year-old Mary Ella, who after giving birth as a 15-year-old was sterilised without her knowledge and told she had had her appendix removed to explain the surgery! Jane is then expected to push through a request for Ivy to have the procedure, again without her knowledge. She feels extremely uncomfortable with the whole situation, but her fellow social workers, her husband and various members of her social circle are entirely at ease with it, which helps explain how such an apparently inconcievable programme ran from 1929 until 1975. But for Jane (and me ) the financial and other justifications used are inhumane when viewed through the filter of a real human with the same hopes, dreams and rights as the more well-off in society. 

Jane's race to 'save' Ivy before it's too late and the increasing tensions in her new marriage drive the dramatic tension of the book. I won't spoil the plot here but I'm pleased the book jumps to the present day so you get a sense of what happened to the characters after the events of 1960. 

Necessary Lies tackles the controversial issue of eugenics in 1960s America without sensationalising it, and weaves in other issues of the day including race relations and the rights of women - all of which serve to make you think more generally about equality and the things we take for granted now, which less than a generation ago were alien to many. 

This is another gripping read from Diane Chamberlain and one I highly recommend. 

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