A charming old farmhouse in the French countryside with a loving musician husband, chef wife, and new daughter seems like the start of a whimsical romp, does it not? If only. Anna and her husband Tobias find everything in their life slightly off from their perfect plan: Their beautiful daughter, Freya, is born severely disabled, their charming farm house is actually falling apart and vermin-infested, and even their marriage is crumbling.
In The Mouse-Proof Kitchen (Atria), Saira Shah dives into the nitty-gritty of life with a severely disabled child. News flash: it’s hard, both emotionally and physically.
“Every day, I feel as if I’m on… a tightrope. I’m wobbling with Freya long a tightrope of drugs. Too much, and her liver and God knows what other organs fail. Not enough and she goes into convulsions. It’s an incredibly delicate balancing act."
Initially, Anna and Tobias’ reaction and behavior towards their baby is completely off-putting — almost inhumane. Multiple times throughout the novel they contemplate leaving her in the hospital and never coming back. They attempt to put her in a home before she is even a year old. During one of Freya’s frequent seizures Anna ruminates, “It’s easier to leave her. It’s become almost a point of honor to leave her. She’s the ball in a dangerous game of brinkmanship. And there, at the back of our minds, is the fear — or the hope — that this time she will not pull through.” When realizing they may one day be faced with feeding her through a nose or stomach tube, Tobias told Anna “We will have to get shot of Freya… while she’s still young enough. You have to do it early or you get… attached. Things just keep getting worse and worse and by the time they’re really awful, it’s too late.”
Despite their seemingly callous, detached attitudes, even I was surprised by the veracity of my dislike for the protagonists. After all, I pride myself in loving literature from different cultures and expanding my mind. Yet I couldn't stop asking: How could they not just embrace their daughter for the time they have? How can they be so selfish? Can't they see how much Freya needs your love and how much joy she could bring into their life?
Uncovering the author's background sheds much-needed light on the book. Shah and her husband have a severely disabled child who cannot walk, talk, or consume whole foods. They love her dearly and do their best to make her days past as love-filled and enjoyable as possible. The Mouse-Proof Kitchen is not autobiographical, but rather a novel that arose out of her worst-case scenario fears involved in raising a disabled child. Shah does embrace and love and care for her child, and, it would appear in this interview with The Telegraph, is not at all selfish, but she was worried that she would be.
We all wonder or worry about how we might react in such a scenario, and facing the potential outcomes was actually quite brave of Shah. Additionally, Shah left plenty of room for readers to feel emotions other than loving adoration towards Anna and Tobias. Characters throughout the novel call them out for their behavior, saying what I wish I could scream into the book.
Saira Shah allowed herself complete reign to entertain potential fears about problems she could face, emotions she could feel or not feel, and struggles she either could not or chose not to face. Although Anna and Tobias made me cringe, the realization that other parents face doubt make this a reassuring read for parents, and the look into a woman's fears about raising a disabled child make this an interesting read for all.