Jo and Ian’s marriage is hanging by a thread. One night almost two years ago, their only child, Paul, died in an accident that should never have happened. They have recently moved to a new area of Birmingham, to be near Ian’s mother Dorrie who is increasingly frail. As Jo spends more time with her mother-in-law, she suspects Dorrie wants to unburden herself of a secret that has cast a long shadow over her family.
Haunted by the death of her son, Jo catches a glimpse of a young boy in a magazine who resembles Paul. Reading the article, she learns of a tragedy in India . . . But it moves her so deeply, she is inspired to embark on a trip where she will learn about unimaginable pain and suffering.
As Jo learns more, she is determined to do her own small bit to help. With the help of new friends, Jo learns that from loss and grief, there is hope and healing in her future.
Why a character over 80 years of age is my favourite character
When I set out to write Mother and Child I was trying to do something a little unusual. On the one hand I wanted to include the ‘heartland’ of many of my other books – old Birmingham and its social history – while also trying to remind people what happened in the city of Bhopal in India in 1984 – and what is still happening.
Sounds like a tall order? Not really as it turned out.
My favourite character in the story is Dorrie Stefani who by the time of much of the story, having been born in 1930, is in her early eighties. Dorrie’s memories also take us back into the streets of old Birmingham during the years of her mother and grandmother, at the turn of the last century. This is a world, for the poor, of damp, insanitary housing, heavily polluted air and often water as well and of sweated labour – kids sitting late at night gluing matchboxes together. Very much, in fact, like many people in present day India.
And Dorrie brings us the atmosphere of before the Second World War, of her love affair with handsome Italian Brummie, Tom Stefani – and what, tragically, happened to Tom in this huge manufacturing city which has been no stranger to industrial accidents.
My own mother, who was from the West Midlands, died at the age of 96, shortly before I began writing this book. She was born in 1921 and worked in Coventry all through World War Two. Dorrie is not Mom – their lives were very different. But I definitely gave Dorrie that wry, brave sense of humour which seemed to become sharper and funnier the older Mom became.
The heart of this story is about the bond between mothers and children and about that other bond between women who have lost and suffered. Outside the rotting Union Carbide plant, which still stands in Bhopal, there is a statue. The plant, once a pesticide factory, caused the deaths of many thousands of people on the night of December 2/3rd, 1984. A tan, containing more than 20 tons of the industry’s most toxic substances exploded, sending a huge cloud of poisonous gas over the surrounding city. In addition to the death toll at that time, many thousands of people have been suffering the effects of poisoning ever since. The toxic effects – DNA is affected – are now reaching into the third and fourth generation.
The statue is called Mother and Child. It is a sculpture by a Dutch Holocaust survivor called Ruth Waterman-Kupferschmidt, and shows a woman with a baby and older child clinging to her, trying to escape the poison gas.
My character Dorrie Stefani was born in an age when people talked less about their feelings. People often kept quiet because there was nothing to be done – no one would listen or act even if you did say something. This is something she also has in common with the people of Bhopal, who are still awaiting full justice today.
Dorrie is just a lovely woman. Kindly, open-minded, stoic, humorous. I have met many older Birmingham people like Dorrie. She doesn’t push herself or her own feelings forward. She looks out for her family, responding with love and accepting openness. In a quiet way she is completely the mainstay of the family.
A word from the author
Soon after midnight on the morning of December 3rd, 1984, what is still recognized as the world’s worst ever industrial disaster took place in the city of Bhopal in central India.
A plant built to manufacture pesticide, owned by the American Union Carbide Corporation, leaked 40 tons of methyl-isocyanate gas, one of the most lethally toxic gases in the industry, over the surrounding neighbourhood. This was a poor area consisting mainly of slum housing, some of it leaning right up against the factory wall.
People woke, coughing and choking. Panic broke out as many tried to flee for their lives. As they ran, their bodies broke down with toxic poisoning, eyes burning, frothing at the mouth. Women miscarried pregnancies. Many people flung themselves in the river and by dawn, the streets were littered with thousands of bodies. It is estimated that 10,000 died that first night and the death toll continued, within weeks, to a total of about 25 000. Many more have died since. There are still reckoned to be 150 000 chronically ill survivors. Their plight was not helped by the fact that Union Carbide would not release the name of an antidote to a poison that they did not want to admit was as dangerous as it really was.
The plant, making less profit than had been hoped, was being run down for closure and was in poor condition. Not one of the safety systems was working satisfactorily. In addition, the original design of the factory had been ‘Indianized’ – in other words built more cheaply than would be expected of such a plant in a western country.
This was 35 years ago. In 1989, a paltry amount of compensation was eventually paid by Union Carbide who did everything a large corporation can do to evade taking responsibility. Their comment was “$500 is about enough for an Indian.” That was $500 to last for the rest of the life of a man who could no longer work to look after his family.
The sickness and suffering from ‘that night’ goes on in those who survived to this day. What is less well known about Bhopal however, is that even before the 1984 gas leak, the company had been dumping toxic waste in solar evaporation ponds. The lining used was about like you would use in a garden water feature. This in a country of heavy rains and floods. In the early 80s, people started to notice how bad their water supply tasted. Cows were dying.
Union Carbide closed the plant. They never cleared the site, which still stands in an area of highly toxic soil and water. The water supply in that area is so contaminated that water has to be brought in from outside. In 2001 Union Carbide was bought by the Dow Chemical Company, and is, from 2018, now DowDuPont. Despite having acquired all the assets of Union Carbide they are not prepared to accept its liabilities and clear up the site.
In the months after the gas leak in 1984, the nearby Hamidia hospital started to see children born with birth defects more horrific than any they had witnessed before. These days, because of gas- and also water-affected parents, the rate of birth defects is now reaching into a third, soon to be a fourth generation. The main parallel with the kind of extreme toxic effects would be with the children of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The only free care in this impoverished neighbourhood for people suffering from the effects of gas poisoning, or to help with very severely handicapped children, is from the Bhopal Medical Appeal. It is to them that all the money from Mother and Child is going.
In the book, you can read more about what happened in Bhopal and about how the book itself came to be written.
Thank you, Annie Murray and Love Books Group Tours.
About the author
Annie Murray was born in Berkshire and read English at St John’s College, Oxford. Her first ‘Birmingham’ novel, Birmingham Rose, hit The Times bestseller list when it was published in 1995. She has subsequently written many other successful novels, including The Bells of Bournville Green, sequel to the bestselling Chocolate Girls, and A Hopscotch Summer. Annie has four children and lives near Reading.
Website : anniemurray.co.uk
Amazon : https://amzn.to/32rq8bM