The Mouse-Proof Kitchen: A Novel
by Saira Shah
I received an advance copy of this book and agreed to review it for Book Browse; it’s slated to be released next month.
The Mouse-Proof Kitchen opens with a birth scene: Anna, age 38, is in labor in a London hospital with her first child. The baby’s heartbeat is lost, and the scene climaxes with an emergency c-section. Shortly after baby Freya’s birth she has a seizure, and it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. An MRI reveals that the baby has polymicrogyria, as well as a host of other issues. After contemplating abandoning her in the hospital, Anna and her husband, Tobias, grudgingly decide to take their baby home, and then impulsively buy a wreck of a mountain farmhouse in the South of France. Their plan is that Anna, a chef, will open a restaurant, and Tobias, a musician, will build a recording studio in the barn where he will compose music.
Life with a profoundly disabled baby is hard – made all the harder by the house that’s falling down around them and infested with rodents, and which they are completely ill-equipped to deal with. They attract a motley crew of quirky neighbors and are constantly at odds with the land and the house and their baby, who has seizures night and day. Through all of this, Anna becomes obsessed with trying to “mouse-proof” her kitchen, and it becomes quickly clear that this is symbolic of all of our inability to keep the chaos and messes of life completely at bay. The book is filled with numerous tortured mother-child relationships, too, in an attempt to illustrate the complexities of all mother-child relationships.
Being the parent of a child with a disability, I’m drawn to books that deal with disability – both fiction and non-fiction. By the time I got a couple of chapters into this book, I thought to myself, “I hate it when people write about disability when they have no actual personal connection to disability.” Then I Googled the author and discovered that she does, in fact, have a daughter with profound disabilities, and this book is a “semi-autobiographical” novel. I was very surprised, as the parents in the book seemed so unlikely to me.
Mainly, the book put me in a bad mood. It was extremely difficult to sympathize with the selfishness of two parents who are contstantly fighting about whether they should even try to love their daughter, with the flakiness of a father who remained so detached and self-absorbed for so much of the story, with a mother who could be so cowardly that she would set her baby down in the midst of a seizure, walk away, and close the door on her so that she wouldn’t have to deal with it. It was impossible not to feel angry that they made their situation harder by choosing to live in such intolerable living conditions – a house infested with rats! – and that they often put their daughter’s very life in peril by refusing to address her medical issues.
When I finished the book, I found this article, and it helped me to understand how the author utilized the creation of fictional characters to sort of have them act out dark things that a lot of parents feel but don’t actually act on. The article did make me feel chastened to a degree: here I am feeling self-righteous and sanctimonious, but the truth is, I have no experience with that level of disability – so who am I to judge? Still, as a parent – even as a parent who sometimes fantasizes about running away from even her typical kids (who doesn’t, right?) – it was still very difficult for me to feel empathetic to the characters in this book.
The writing is good, but I’m not exactly sure what other redeeming qualities the story has. The front cover carries a subtitle, “Sometimes life gets a little messy . . .” next to a mouse. This implies a whimsical feeling that the actual grim story does not contain.