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The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah

Saira Shah's first novel is a moving story of life with Freya, a severely disabled child, and of the struggles her parents face as they try to accept her. 

Saira Shah spoke to Contented Baby about her book and why she wrote the novel.

When I began to long for a baby at 42, I knew it wouldn't be easy.  Like many older would-be mothers I began taking care of myself, eating properly and cutting out alcohol.

But I didn't stop there. My partner Scott and I decided that it was the perfect time to get out of the rat race and try to reconstruct our lives. We bought a crumbling farmhouse in the High Languedoc region of France, in the mountains quite close to Spain.  Our plan was to become freelance - we knew we'd earn far less but it seemed worth it.

And it seemed to work: I fell pregnant. When my daughter was born (in the UK because we'd delayed our move) I felt a flood of love such as I'd never felt before.

But, several hours later, she had a fit.  Doctors told us that very few newborns have convulsions and that they'd have to carry out a large number of tests.  It took a week - they tested everything from her heart to her eyes, and of course her brain.

Seven days later we got the devastating news that her brain had catastrophically failed to develop.  The doctors were suggesting that we mark her notes 'not for resuscitation'.

They explained her brain abnormalities were so severe that she would never walk or talk, would not develop beyond a young baby, and might need tube feeding and ventilation.

She might die any time or she might live a full life span. But she'd need round the clock care for the rest of her life.

Scott offered to go to his old boss to get his job back and suggested that we sell the house in France. I thought it was a heroic thing to say - but after much discussion we decided to go ahead with our move to France.

Our daughter, who we called Ailsa, soon began to have regular fits. Doctors had explained that they were because her brain didn't have enough capacity to cope with her growing body. One consultant in the UK had said: 'sometimes when the wiring is this wrong it just flickers and goes out'.

So night after night, I'd wake up and cuddle her as she turned blue and her muscles went into spasm, wondering if this would be it for her. There was nothing I could do to help. It made me numb in a profound way.

In the mornings, shell-shocked and too jangled to sleep, we'd put Ailsa into a sling and explore the area. We found a lost world - this region had once been cultivated but, in an age of industrial farming and mass production, was being allowed to go back to Nature.

Gradually the magic of the place dripped into us. Beneath what we thought of as wilderness, we discovered terraces of chestnut trees and the remains of villages and irrigation channels.

After a career as a journalist, I'd always wanted to write fiction. Now I needed some form of escape, even if it was just a couple of hours a day.  I began to spend the early hours when I couldn't sleep writing. I became fascinated by the place we'd found ourselves in and I began to research its history, talking to some of the old folks who remembered how it used to be.

The last thing I wanted to write about was our own lives - but Ailsa's condition was so all-encompassing, it slipped into my novel as well. Every time something went wrong with her, I imagined how it could have been worse in my constructed parallel world. Every time Scott and I beat ourselves up for our ability to care for Ailsa properly, I discovered that my fictional characters did worse - far worse - than us. 

Whenever I felt lonely, I invented extra characters, who all piled in to help or hinder. Whenever we felt sad, that sadness got into the novel - but happiness and laughter did too.

One day Ailsa looked at us and smiled. It's difficult to describe how important that was. We realised that she was trying to get through to us.

Apart from her smile, the doctors' prognoses, externally, were spot on. Nearly five years later. she still cant support her head, she can't sit up or even turn herself in bed and I have to do it for her during the night to stop her choking. She has severe convulsions and chest infections... She could die any day or she could outlive us both.

Ailsa would confound the doctors in one last thing - as we began to risk loving her fully, she managed to make it clear that she loves us back. Her muscular floppiness makes her very cuddly and if you pick her up she curls into your body and lays her head on your shoulder, and at night she swims towards you in bed and nestles up to you.  She loves people, she loves... well she just loves loving and being loved.

About the author


Saira Shah is an award-winning documentary film-maker, war reporter and writer whose work includes the films Beneath the Veil and Death in Gaza. Her daughter Ailsa has severe cerebral palsy.

Review - The Mouseproof Kitchen

Saira Shah's first novel is a moving story of life with Freya, a severely disabled child, and of the struggles her parents face as they try to accept her.Anna and Tobias learn that their beautiful newborn baby daughter will struggle to walk, sit or speak and that she will probably never know who they are.  It's something most parents never have to think about - and the first chapter will leave you close to tears as Anna and Tobias gradually find out their daughter's fate. The novel charts their emotions with painful honesty as they question whether they are willing or able to take on the huge challenges that life with Freya will present.

Anna and Tobias decide to go ahead with a planned move to France with Freya, and the novel charts their life in a ramshackle, rodent-infested farmhouse.  The French countryside and the local characters who become part of their world provide a scenic background for the stresses Anna and Tobias face as they learn to love their daughter.

What's remarkable about this novel is the stark emotions Shah exposes as the couple question their feelings about their daughter and react to life with her in ways which are sometimes far from admirable. The Mouseproof Kitchen may make you cry, it may make you sad or even angry, but it will certainly make you think. A must-read debut novel.

The Mouseproof Kitchen is published by Harvill Secker at £12.99 on April 4.



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