The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah

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The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This fictionalised account of a couple coping with a move to France and a disabled new-born is unexpectedly and gratifyingly honest. Not only will it strike a chord of empathy with parents of disabled children, but will help to generate understanding in those of us who have never given it any thought before – and all this while entertaining at the same time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099575146

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Anna (a chef) and her partner Tobias (a composer) have it all: a great relationship, dreams of moving to France so that Anna can open a well-respected restaurant and, to top it all off, they're expecting a beautiful baby. When Freya is born she is indeed beautiful; she's also profoundly disabled. However, Anna and Tobias decide to follow their dream anyway, not worrying about anything until the moment they have to. Once they've bought their ramshackle home in the Languedoc they realise that the moments they have to worry about come more quickly and frequently than they'd realised and their support system is eccentric to say the least.

Saira Shah, writer, journalist and documentary film maker has chosen a subject she knows well for her latest novel. Just like the fictional Freya, Saira's own daughter Ailsa has cerebral palsy. This doesn't mean that The Mouseproof Kitchen is a thinly disguised autobiography though. In Saira's notes at the back she explains where fact ends and, although some themes are common, Anna and Tobias become characters in their own right who went their own way as they developed, managing shocking the author herself with their reactions.

Having said that, sharing a beautiful child with a challenging disability means that Saira is ideally placed to write about the feelings and discoveries that become the core of the story and that also makes it stand out from other works lacking such insight.

In these pages we're shown a new mother trying to tear herself in two between the demands of a frightened partner and a possibly life-limited baby. Anna desperately tries to hold onto both while coming to terms with her own feelings. Meanwhile Tobias subsumes his bereavement for baby of whom he'd dreamt. We feel for them as they experience parental love that lacks the ability to protect the child as each milestone's absence points to deeper levels of disability.

It's not just their reaction to the situation that's interesting though. Indeed I have a feeling that Anna's friends' and family's reactions have a foot in real life too. The most unhelpful of these comes from Anna's mother. Don't misunderstand me though - this isn't a misery memoir. In fact Anna's mum could be the twin of Bridget Jones's mother. She's priceless (at least to us – darned annoying to Anna and Tobias) providing us with some timely comic relief as we giggle at some of her whims and attitudes while we simultaneously feel at least mildly miffed that some people really think like that.

Some of the Languedoc villagers are fleshed out better than others but they all add to the novel's richness, including an unexpected historical dimension with the cultural. Indeed, the gatherings and customs that echo through the countryside also hide a sadness and, in some cases, guilt, that percolates up from the past.

By the end all must face up to what they're trying to suppress or avoid. In the meantime we're treated to a touching, amusing story that warms our hearts and, more importantly, leaves us with a better understanding of the fear, challenges and development of parental love when the much wanted child is seen by society in a way that's less than helpful or supportive.

Thank you, Vintage, for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If this appeals we also recommend Marilyn and Me by Shanta Everington about an adult struggling with society's concept of their disability.

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