Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.
When a misguided well-wisher tells her that “everything happens for a reason”, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…
Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
When I first talked to Karen Sullivan at Orenda about this incredible book – part of the Jubilant June publishing event – she told me I would cry but I would love it. She was right. I did cry. I cried buckets. I did love it too. This novel reminded me so much about my own loss. I cried for Rachel, I cried for the author, and I cried for anyone who has suffered this terrible loss. Mostly, and selfishly, I cried for myself. I do know the profound sense of loss Rachel goes through, because I lost three pregnancies, one with twins, when I was in my twenties. Of course these were miscarriages, not full term pregnancies, and as someone once tactfully told me ‘better to lose them earlier, than to actually have to give birth, or to have your baby die after a few days’ as if we were playing some sort of ‘Grief Top Trumps’. I was told many things in the months after each miscarriage: there was probably something wrong with the baby; we don’t always understand God’s plans; maybe it wasn’t meant to be. People don’t say these things because they’re malicious. They say these things because they don’t know what to say and silence seems unacceptable. The most useful thing anyone said was from the nurse who discharged me the first time. I was so traumatised by the past 24 hours I was staring ahead, not really seeing and not really listening. She touched my hand and said ‘it isn’t your fault, remember that’.
However, as it happened again and again, I did feel guilty and wracked my brain looking for things I might have done wrong. Rationally I knew it was not my fault, but I wasn’t always rational. Was this to do with my MS? Did I take a tablet I shouldn’t? Should I have helped in the charity shop sorting and labelling clothes, moving boxes? I wasn’t trying for a baby so was it the lack of vitamins? No folic acid? My body felt like such an inhospitable place. It was already attacking itself, now it was attacking my babies. Is it because I shouldn’t be a mum? Did I have a right to bring a baby into my already imperfect world, with my imperfect body? My brain switched off. My heart broke. I was told I had incomplete miscarriages, the baby dies but doesn’t ‘come away’. I then had to read and sign a clinical form that referred to my baby as the ‘products of conception’ and was headed ‘Consent for Termination’. My guilt clicked in again. What if they were wrong and I was killing my baby? To really complete the trauma I contracted an infection after my third miscarriage, and the doctor who had to examine and admit me to hospital actually slapped me on my bare leg because I wasn’t moving fast enough. I felt like my body wasn’t mine anymore. It broke my relationship. It took me on a long, painful journey of finding out that becoming a Mum was going to be more difficult for me because I had Hughes Syndrome, a clotting abnormality. It would be so difficult that I had to choose my own mental health over becoming a mother. I couldn’t make sense of what I’d done wrong to deserve this, on top of my other disabilities.
This is all our central character, Rachel, is trying to do. She wants to make sense of why her baby, Luke, died. She latches onto a platitude and weaves a story around it. If everything does happen for a reason, what could that reason be? Then she thinks of that fateful day when she stopped a stranger from jumping in front of a train, the same day she found out she was pregnant. What if he’d been meant to die? Then, because he was saved, someone else had to die in his place. It’s not clear if she truly believes this, or whether she has to think a greater purpose is at play, because if Luke’s death is without a reason she will fall into the abyss. So, we follow her search for the man she saved. Maybe if she sees him making the most of his second chance at life, she can accept her loss. There is, of course, sadness and grief on the journey, but there’s also humour and the hope that Rachel will work through the worst of her loss and find some peace and acceptance in this awful situation.
The writer is incredibly courageous to take her experiences and lend them to Rachel for the purposes of the novel. As we follow her ‘non-maternity leave’ she tells her story with such a frank, raw, and brutal honesty. This could be a difficult read for someone only just going through the same experience, but for me, I felt like someone had finally seen the pain I was carrying. I would no longer have to stand in the Post Office queue, watching people going about their business, with a terrible inner urge to scream ‘my baby died’. Rachel’s story is told through a series of emails addressed to the son she’s lost. In this private correspondence she can express her worst fears and nothing is left unsaid. There is also a sense for her, that she can send them somewhere; that somehow, Luke can see them. The authenticity of this stream of consciousness can only be achieved by letting us delve deeply into Rachel’s feelings and state of mind. It seems so authentic, because it is. Katie has delved into her very soul for this novel and welcomed us in. I can’t thank her enough. I admire her enormously. It inspires me to keep going, to keep writing my own story.
The fact that this is Rachel’s world means that everyone we meet, we can only see through her eyes. I really enjoyed some of these characters and they do bring balance to a tough story by creating some of the lighter, more humorous moments. Josephine, the daughter of a woman who helps Rachel in her search, has an offbeat humour that I really enjoyed. She really doesn’t have the ability to filter her thoughts before they come out of her mouth, and while that’s always funny, it can also be very insightful in a quirky way. The author has a unique ability to affect the reader’s emotions in one way and then switch them round again very quickly. Rachel’s family mean well when they help and hope she can ‘move on’ from her grief. Some don’t fully understand her quest and want the very best for her. I found myself understanding their confusion and agreeing with their wish that she heals emotionally. The next second I’d be furious, because something has been said that’s so glaringly insensitive. I’d want to turn the air blue with a few ‘F’ words.
I know I have rambled about my own experiences here and maybe I haven’t said enough about why you should read the book. However, I can honestly say this is the book about the loss of a baby, and the chance to be a mother, that is the most authentic I have ever read. I felt represented by this story and by this talented debut author. It’s unique structure, it’s rawness and ability to plumb the depths of despair, while still making you laugh and dare to hope, is simply extraordinary. It is beautifully written and captures our human need to make sense of something that is senseless. No one should be told how to grieve. Each person, and each individual loss is different. We humans find it difficult to accept that some life-experiences have no explanations or answers. When we can’t find meaning, we create it. So, we tell each other stories.
I’d like to say a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for putting this book in front of me months ago, then waiting patiently for my response. I’d also like to thank Anne Cater for letting me ramble like this on the blog tour.
Meet The Author
Everything Happens for a Reason is Katie’s first novel. She used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Katie’s son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and her character’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on her own. And yes, someone did say to her ‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Katie grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. When she’s not writing or walking children and dogs, Katie loves baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing she had written other people’s brilliant novels.