Long before becoming a mother herself, filmmaker and author Saira Shah was deeply attuned to children. As a war correspondent, her unsentimental but searing films, Death in Gaza and Beneath the Veil, showed the effects of children living in extreme conflicts.
The misplaced bravado of Palestinian boys brainwashed by ideas of matyrdom and the haunting fear in the green eyes of young girls in a distant Afghan valley brought home the tragedy of their circumstances.
Saira's delicate telling of their stories remains vivid.
Her first novel, The Mouseproof Kitchen, blends the real life story of her own daughter, born profoundly disabled, and the story of a fictional Type A couple, Anna and Tobias, coming to terms with a life they never bargained for.
Anna, Tobias, and their daughter, Freya, end up in a rickety, rodent-infested farmhouse in a remote town in France; far from the mansion in Provence they had imagined. Little do they know that this is the beginning of what will become an incredible journey of the heart; one during which they learn there really is no such thing as a mouse-proof kitchen. Life is messy, and it’s the messy bits that make it count.
Yet quickly, baby Freya's little body proves complex. One of her pupils is shaped like a teardrop. She has a seizure. And an MRI reveals multiple problems in her brain. Trying to come to grips with her baby's tragic prognosis, Anna thinks, "Perhaps she [Freya] was watching a sunset spread out against the Tibetan mountains when she was called for Nirvana. But she begged for one more life here on earth, so most of her soul came rushing to me while a part of her brain was left behind, as shattered and fragmented as the sunset on clouds."
The most difficult and the most breathtaking aspect of this book is the brute honesty with which Tobias, Freya's father, deals with her. As naturally as Anna is physically drawn to loving her baby, Tobias tries to reject her, fearful of becoming attached to a child who may not live, and who certainly will never know him, at least according to her doctors.
I found myself in tears reading Shah's description of Anna watching Freya breathe in the quiet of night, kissing her soft cheeks and, every parents' worst fear: seeing her infant's body gripped by powerful seizures, not knowing if she'd survive them.
Anna must come to terms with her unyielding love for her child as well as the natural instinct to survive in the face of relentless need and responsibility.
This book is simply the most powerful, affirming, important read you're likely to come across for a long time. Anna and Tobias' honesty, courage, and above all, love, reveal the essence of what it is to be a parent -- both in its selfish longing and its selfless dedication.