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Glass Houses Paperback – 7 July 2016
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About the Author
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Etta Dubceck holds her hand until the ambulance arrives and in doing so, saves her life.
Jackie Buxton's debut novel explores the aftermath of that fatal error of judgement and the ways in which the two women's lives become inextricably linked.
This is a well written story, with fallible, believable characters, whose actions and responses to the strains they are subjected to put will have you on the edge of your seat. We can all heave a sigh of relief that 'there but for the Grace of God ...' but Tori refuses to give in to pressure, and sets about rebuilding her life. Meanwhile, Etta's past colours her actions and responses to the trauma she is suffering. Their families and the wider public are all drawn into the conflict, with surprising consequences.
I am usually a fairly slow reader but I couldn't put this one down. The ending was a complete surprise, which I won't spoil, and the ideas thrown up by the novel are still buzzing around my head.
This novel would be perfect for a book club, with so many issues raised, and so many interesting areas for debate. It would also make a terrific film, so I hope Jackie's publishers are onto it!
I have previously read Jackie's blog post, Tea and Chemo, which I can also recommend, and I hope she goes on to write many further novels.
What I liked about Buxton's book was that the person texting in the car was actually a 51 year old woman - a wife and mother - a woman who is responsible, bright and professional. She is not one of the stereotypes that springs to mind with this crime, or who people automatically and judgementally think of- not a reckless teenager, a speeding boy racer. This is one very normal women who makes one decision that has a devastating impact on the rest of her life and the lives of several others as well. I liked that at the beginning it is not immediately clear who caused the accident, or how, and this in itself challenges our preconceptions of what is dangerous driving and who we might immediately suspect if we'd come across the same horrific scene.
What I also liked was that Buxton uses this situation to explore the bigger idea that we've all taken a risk, done the thing we shouldn't have, made a mistake, made the wrong decision - the question is, how do we bring ourselves back from this? How do we atone for this?
I like a book that makes me do a bit of work. I like a book that drip feeds alluring details that hint of a complicated back story and lingering secrets hidden in the back of the characters wardrobes and this novel certainly does this. As we alternate between the narratives of Tori (the driver allegedly causing the accident) and Etta (from one of the other cars in the accident) we learn through Etta's conversations with her best friend Sara that she also has more to hide:
"'Ok.' Sara held up her hands. 'I understand that some secrets do more harm if they're told.'"
Sara has known Etta for a long time and has clearly a much deeper understanding of her character than the reader. This is a really effective way of showing the reader that Etta is a complicated character and not necessarily reliable as a narrator. Etta's obsessive and destructive behaviour generates tension, suspense, action and concern as well as making the reader want to read on and find answers to all their questions. The tension between Sara and Etta is a really effective plot device and increases throughout the novel until eventually Sara calls time on Etta's increasingly worrying behaviour.
"Stop it Etta," she said, "No more excuses. I can't be part of this."
This book is a difficult read too. The subject matter is harrowing, heart wrenching, controversial and tests our sympathy and empathy for each character at varying different stages in the story. There are also some very poignant observations within the dialogue between characters.
"Moments in our past can haunt us in these circumstances can't they?"
"When your child dies, you die."
This is a very contemporary novel and Buxton has incorporated the role of Twitter and social media very naturally within this story. The use of hashtags and viral threads increases the tension and drama as well as illustrating how far the ripples from this one moment spread and just how life changing the whole event becomes as #ToritheTextingKiller has to come to terms with everything that has happened. I loved this description of Tori at the press conference:
"More questions pinged at her like bees escaping a hive; so many stings they were indistinguishable from each other."
Tori's performance at the press conference was very moving. She is a woman who wants to atone for what has happened, that is prepared to almost jeopardise everything her husband and lawyer have worked to protect, so deep is her guilt, grief and empathy. The scene is completely compelling and I swung between feeling Tori's pain and admiring her brave, heartfelt responses to the lawyer's cringing impatience to just get her away from the press and out of the back door. It will surely be a scene that divides opinions amongst readers and discussions in book groups.
There are frequent references to broken glass throughout the whole novel; the pane in the green house, glass shattered on the floor, glass shattered at the scene of the crash, knocked glasses from the table.... Sometimes subtle, sometimes more conspicuous, Buxton is clearly using glass metaphorically to illustrate the fragility of life as well as the saying "People in Glass Houses...." which touches on the ideas of judgement, blame and prejudice in the story.
There are some wise words spoken by the characters. There is a lot to think about. But this novel does not preach to the readers, it is not trying to teach us a moral code. Ultimately it is a good story of two women who have to live with the mistakes and decisions they have made, and how they try to move forward with this.
"Nobody walks across this earth unblemished," she said. "It's how we deal with our mistakes which makes us who we are."
One of the reviewers on Goodreads refers to this book as a "moral maze" and I think that actually summarises the novel very well. I would recommend this book. It's not an easy read, it's not really a happy read but it is an important one. Buxton can clearly handle a complicated topic and can develop realistic characters. This novel would be a great choice for fans of Liane Moriarty, Kathryn Croft and Jodi Picioult.
It is so based in reality that it makes me shudder. For every time you watch as someone cuts a lane or whose lane discipline is so woeful that they cause the person driving behind them to brake or swerve, continuing on blissfully unaware of any issues left behind them. Every time I watch a car do something stupid, I wonder about what the driver is doing that is so important that piloting a tonne of metal becomes a secondary concern… you pass them and they are on the phone, speaking or texting, or reading a map braced on the steering wheel, or they are looking down to their passenger side, or anywhere but the road in front of them, and I kind of huff and think ‘what an idiot!’?
Now imagine that someone did something stupid in front and because they were doing anything but concentrating on their car on the road, and that a disastrous crash occurred. I say crash because it is not an accident. An accident is when a tree falls on you or some other act of god, and someone having an idiot moment is not an accident, not when it is because they are trying / failing to do two things at once.
This books opens with a horrendous scene, a woman is badly hurt, trapped in her car, and someone goes to try to aid her. The amount that anyone can do in such a situation is limited, but sitting and talking and touching is such a simple and human thing that it creates a link between these two beings.
The woman spends time in hospital, unaware that she is at the centre of a national debate on specifically her action, the sending of a text whilst driving, which contributed to the horrendous crash on a motorway. She is denigrated, a creature of media-created fear and loathing, evil personified with a mobile phone.
Now if that happens, what do you do, do you think ‘there but for the grace of god…’, or do you bay and howl and demand that the person you deem to be at fault be penalised and punished? Do you dissect their life to get to the root cause of everything that you hate about them? Do we as a society need to hate someone whose lapse has caused harm to another person or family? Those ordinary members of society who become known and vilified for one act - are they bad people 100% of the time? Probably not, maybe they are nice to cats. But society really only cares about the snippets – the news feed on the dratted mobile phones, and how nice it would be if anyone caught doing something that annoys us was properly punished? Because that is only right and proper, isn’t it?
Well, this is the brilliantly considered aftermath of the accident. It is difficult to feel empathy for someone painted evil, even if they are nice to cats, even if they were a saint, the prurient interests make it difficult for anyone to recover from an incident deemed so dreadful to society. So we see Tori and how she deals with her physical injuries and her mental torment. We also see those peripheral to the crash, and how the ripples spread out and away from her action.
It really is a thought provoking book, from the initial horror through to a certain catharsis, I was hooked. The interrelated stories, of families reunited and family members who chose to absent themselves from the whole situation, to those characters that you start out not liking but as you get to know them, they kind of grow on you (although I do not find scraggy pony tails on blokes such a good look). But enough of my personal prejudices… maybe it just goes to show how much this book spoke to me.
I suppose that sometimes you get away with stuff, and sometimes you don’t. For all the people who text whilst driving, or who just turn on their phone to read a text whilst driving (extra-large font size anyone? or the idiots who were driving in snow the other day without leaving any extra space in between them and the car in front), this is a cautionary tale of someone who, one day, did not get away with it. They should read this, it might make them think. And the wonderful potholed roads might be a little safer. Apart from acts of god. Or cats.