"The moment Twyla looked into her baby's eyes, she feared something was wrong."
So begins Blind, a gripping domestic drama by British author Cath Weeks that is set to provoke many a book club debate and will appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult and Kim Edwards. The debut novelist puts an ordinary middle-class marriage to the test with the birth of a baby who turns out to be blind. Irish-Catholic dad Dylan is able to accept his firstborn son as he is, but American-born mum Twyla wants to try high-risk artificial eye transplant surgery.
Speaking from her home in Bath, England, Weeks says she decided to pit the traditional, religious-based value of accepting "what God has given" against the modern approach of expecting a medical fix for every situation.
"I wanted to put a spotlight on perfectionism in Western society because the double edge of that sword is: what happens to those people with conditions that don't have a cure? You've got to come to a level of acceptance with certain things in life," she says.
In Weeks' novel, a once happily married young couple suddenly find themselves fundamentally opposed on an issue of crucial importance. She points out that most of us, before getting married, make sure we cover the basics like, "How many children do you want? Do you prefer to live in town or the country?" But what we don't discuss is, "What would we do if our child had spina bifida? What if my mum had to come and live with us while she died slowly of cancer?"
"These are the things that put massive strain on a marriage and we have no idea how we'll cope. But you can't write a pre-nup for every possibility. No one would get married," Weeks says.
At the heart of the book and on its front cover is the strapline "Never underestimate a mother's love". When Twyla sets about fundraising a huge sum to pay for the controversial operation, she attracts media coverage followed by hate mail and unwanted approaches. Weeks says the English media contains a strong current of criticism and judgement of parents, aided and abetted by social media.
"If a toddler drowns or chokes on a chicken nugget, people will all jump on the bandwagon saying, 'It's outrageous. Where were the parents?' The main message I want readers to take away is that until you're in that position and it's your child, you can't judge."
She only realised how much she'd drawn on personal experience when she'd finished the book, but acknowledges drawing on first-hand knowledge to depict the different ways family members cope with having a special needs sibling.
"When my first baby was born he had bowel disease, septicaemia and meningitis. He had to be starved for a month in intensive care," Weeks recalls. "The sheer shock of seeing him skeletal and covered in wires was one of the emotions I drew on, along with fear and guilt. Six months later, we were told that he might not walk or run because his legs were hypertonic [stiff] as a result. When that happens you feel guilty, like, 'Why aren't I just grateful he's alive?' It's hard for mums - of course we're grateful - but that doesn't stop us from wanting what's best."
Each of her characters' responses to adversity are a combination of their life experiences and temperament. Twyla lost her mother as a young child but took a positive approach, whereas escape was the survival mechanism for both her father and her husband Dylan, who grew up with a disabled sister.
"My closest friend has two daughters with special needs and I've watched each of her children having very different responses to it. It's the same with grief. Some families put up photos of people they've lost and others never speak of it again."
The characters are often unable to express difficult emotions to those closest to them, turning to strangers instead. Weeks remembers going to a wedding where the father of the groom suddenly opened up about his daughter's death years earlier. "At the end he welled up and said, 'I've never spoken to anyone about that before'. Isn't it odd that he shared his grief with someone he barely knew rather than his wife? Maybe it's easier to tell a blank canvas."
Blind takes a decidedly "domestic noir" twist at the halfway mark when a crime is committed and mystery must be solved. Weeks says she wanted to raise the stakes for readers to think about where they stood with the surgery as well as who did what and why.
The mystery is resolved by the book's end, but the personal relationships remain realistically open-ended in what is a thought-provoking and satisfying read.
Weeks has been writing since she was a child and won a national UK writing competition at age 19. She spent her 20s in London working in magazine publishing and writing novels in her spare time before moving home to Bath where she wrote in between raising her two sons and part-time work. Blind is the seventh novel she has finished, but the first to be printed by a mainstream publisher, hence it being described as her "debut". She self-published her fifth book, The Mood Ring and its sequel, Burnt Lotus as an e-book on Amazon.
Weeks says she wanted to look at "what happens to a mum when you're absolutely pushed to the brink? What does that do to a family?" Her novels contain a recurring theme of families struggling with adversity. "I think probably there'll be an element of that in what I write in the future, too," she says.
by Cath Weeks