Author: Diane Chamberlain
Destiny Romance RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
‘I think it’s the way you defined eugenics,’ I said. ‘You made it sound … I don’t know. Manipulative and controlling.’
The cover of this book is a little deceptive at first glance, giving the impression that this is a light, summer read. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain is far from that, and as I look at the cover with hindsight, the gaps between the wooden decking are suggestive (to me) of something (or someone) “falling through the gaps” or “secrets being exposed”. Hindsight is amazing, isn’t it? The tagline mentions exposing “darkest secrets” and really, the secret (or dilemma) itself is the strongest theme in this book. However, underlying this fictional account is the knowledge that this novel is based on true events, and during that period of history, many peoples’ rights “fell through the gaps”. Got you all confused, haven’t I?
Necessary Lies is set in North Carolina, 1960 and told through the eyes of two very different women: Jane, a newlywed and rookie social worker; and Ivy, a fifteen-year-old girl in Jane’s caseload. It’s a time when women were not encouraged to have careers (many did not even want to) and those who were working were expected to quit their jobs upon marriage. That’s exactly what Jane’s husband, Robert, expects, but Jane has other ideas. Fresh from college, she wants to help others and has found a job as a social worker; Robert, a pediatrician, doesn’t see the point (and is somewhat embarrassed by her choice to work and her choice of job), but agrees that she can work until she falls pregnant. He expects that this won’t take long, but once again, Jane has other ideas. She wants children, but not yet. Out in the rural tobacco fields of Grace County, Jane encounters a world of extreme poverty far beyond her middle-class upbringing, but while this is shocking, there’s worse in store.
It’s in Grace County that Jane meets Ivy and her family. Ivy lives with her 17-year-old sister Mary Ella, a single mother, her nephew William, and her chronically ill grandmother, Nonnie. Their circumstances are grim – to make ends meet they rely on ‘extras’ from their landlord (none of which can be revealed to welfare lest their payments be cut). Jane soon discovers that Mary Ella has been sterilised – the official line is that Mary Ella is ‘feeble-minded’ and promiscuous, so this is for the better. Jane’s role, she is informed, is to petition for the same to happen to Ivy, lest she go the same path as her sister and have a baby out of wedlock. Her desire to do the right thing draws her into a moral dilemma that puts her career, marriage and the fate of others on the line.
Necessary Lies examines the issue of forced sterilisation in North America. This really happened - 31 out of 50 US states took part in forced sterilisation practices to some degree (if you want more information, start here) over a 40-year period. Unwilling or unconsenting individuals (female and male) had their reproductive organs removed, destroying any chance of them conceiving children. Today we would call this barbaric – and I agree – but in that time, propaganda had many convinced it was a smart move. While some states had higher numbers of forced sterilisations, North Carolina has been described as the ‘most aggressive’ because it allowed ‘social workers to designate people for sterilization’ and because its eligibility criteria were lax – single mothers, “feeble-minded” (IQ under 70), epileptics and mentally ill people were all candidates. This all makes Necessary Lies sound like a heavy read – and based on this issue, it’s not light – but Chamberlain tackles the issue thoughtfully and carefully through the dual narratives of Ivy and Jane, showing both sides and the dilemmas both face. All in all, it’s a thought-provoking read with carefully-drawn characters that complement and enhance the plot.
If you like reading novels that force you to think about confronting, or new, issues, Necessary Lies is well-worth picking up. If a light summer read is what you’re after … I’m guessing you probably stopped reading this review after the first paragraph! It’s the kind of book that will appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult and Susan Lewis; it’s also one that would be good for book clubs, given its potential for debate. Not just about forced sterilisation, but about gender roles, feminism, women and careers, rights and choices. I didn’t find that all these things to ponder weighed me down – no, I felt intrigued, interested and challenged – and contented from the experience of a good book.
Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan Australia. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.
Bookish treat: I’ve got a chocolate croissant and coffee waiting for me …