Probably best known as a crime writer – she is the author of the Sal Kilkenny private eye stories and creator and scriptwriter of the hit ITV detective drama Blue Murder – Cath Staincliffe also writes standalone novels which focus on ordinary people faced with extraordinary events.
Her latest book Fear of Falling is one such story – and is one with which she has a very personal connection. It explores the theme of adoption breakdown, a subject not much discussed but which is on the increase. Staincliffe, who is based in Manchester, was adopted herself in the 1960s – born in Leeds, she was adopted by a family from Bradford where she grew up. “I have always been quite open about being adopted and my adoption was relatively successful,” she says.
Her adoptive parents were always very supportive of her contacting her birth mother, which she did when she was 40. “It wasn’t easy for me and my birth mother but coming through the other side of it my parents got to meet my mum and I got to meet my half siblings and wider family.”
While she was going through that process, Staincliffe started to hear tragic stories about adoptions that hadn’t worked out well. “I heard about two sets of people who when the children got in to their early teens it had become untenable and they had been forced to put the child back into care. I started to think about how horrendous that would have been for everyone involved.”
In the novel, set in Yorkshire, we see couple Lydia and Mac, who have been unable to have a family of their own, adopt toddler Chloe. Undisclosed trauma in Chloe’s past eventually begins to affect her behaviour and puts a strain on their marriage and also on Lydia’s relationship with old friend Bel, a single mother with a daughter of the same age. “As I began to do more research, there seemed to be this groundswell of people who had terrible experiences and had been completely abandoned by social services,” says Staincliffe.
“Getting help was impossible and families were having to go through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services when their children were obviously very unhappy and in some cases becoming violent or involved in crime. It seemed that until things got to breaking point there was no provision to help them.” In an afterword, Staincliffe explains that she is of a generation of people adopted in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the children of young women forced to give up their babies for adoption at birth due to the social stigma of single motherhood at that time. Today, many of the children who are adopted have had a chaotic or traumatic early childhood before being taken in to care. “The lack of support for the poorest and most disadvantaged families at the moment is storing up so much trouble for the future,” says Staincliffe. “But there are people out there who are trying to improve the situation.” She hopes her novel will raise awareness of the issue of failed adoption. “The book is not intended to put people off adoption at all, but simply to point out what is wrong with the system,” she says. “I think that the more voices that can be heard saying more support is needed, the better.”
Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe
Published by constable, £19.99
Yvette huddleston 4/5
Cath Staincliffe’s engaging novel Fear of Falling is part psychological thriller, part social commentary and tackles the difficult theme of what happens when an adoption goes wrong.
With clear-eyed honesty and great sensitivity, she explores this tricky subject through the story of two women, Lydia and Bel, close friends since they were teenagers. By focussing on their relationship and the various challenges to it over the years, Staincliffe adds an extra dimension to her core narrative. Bel is the wild one who falls pregnant by accident, becomes a single mother and has a slightly fraught relationship with her daughter Freya. Meanwhile Lydia – the steadier, more conventional of the two – and her husband Mac struggle to conceive and eventually decide to adopt toddler Chloe. Their joy at finally becoming parents is soon replaced by concern about their daughter’s behaviour which becomes increasingly disturbing, putting a strain on their marriage and on Lydia’s friendship with Bel.
It is a totally compelling, if at times distressing, read. Staincliffe gets inside the heads of her protagonists, delivering the perspective of both the anxious parent and the damaged child. A sincere and powerful account of a modern tragedy which, heart-breakingly, acknowledges that sometimes love is just not enough to heal the pain.