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The Mouseproof Kitchen - Q&A

(87 Posts)
CariGransnet (GNHQ) Tue 04-Feb-14 14:48:16

Those who were lucky enough to win copies of this month's book club choice should have received their books.

Author Saira Shah will be doing a Q&A later in the month - so do add your questions for her here. (For those who don't yet have a copy details about the book and how to get one here


Saira has now answered your questions - you can read what she has to say from here

merlotgran Sun 16-Feb-14 16:30:01

I have really enjoyed this wonderful book and found myself really caring about all the characters although Tobias took a bit of effort!! I think Anna's controlled neglect of Freya was necessary for the story to have direction and I found it easy to empathise with her frustrated maternal instincts being channelled into cooking, cleaning and organising the domestic front.

Saira, As Anna seemed to live her life quite recklessly (not using contraception) and despite the exhausting routine of Freya's care needs, why did you decide to end her second pregnancy in a miscarriage even though it was not a result of her one night stand with Julien?

The link with Rose, her recipes and role in WW2 reminded me a little of Joanne Harris' Five Quarters Of The Orange.

nannyann5 Sun 16-Feb-14 20:36:34

I was lucky enough to win a copy of The Mouseproof Kitchen and enjoyed reading it very much. I did find it puzzling why a couple with a newborn disabled daughter would subject themselves to life in such a rundown house, and felt myself feeling quite annoyed with Tobias at times, for not pulling his weight, but on the whole, an interesting and emotional read. I would like to ask Saira if there any plans for a follow-up book?

glammanana Mon 17-Feb-14 14:53:27

Thank you so much for my copy of The Mouseproof Kitchen,Do you think Saria that Anna & Tobias would have received the same kind of help from friends locally as they did from Gustav,Kerim & Lizzy if they had not moved to France ? I thought the discription of Ludovic's emotions when he and Therese had their baby very emotional indeed so well written.
I will never look at Parmesan in the same way again after the discription of how to rid ones house of rats (page 207).
Excellent book really enjoyed it thanks so much once again.

pennwood Tue 18-Feb-14 11:26:06

I am only up to page 149 but really surprised with myself that I am enjoying this genre of book as it is so different to my usual read. My heart goes out to Anna & Tobias & can sympathise in how they both react to Freya. I am dying to get the book finished.

mrsmopp Wed 19-Feb-14 21:06:17

I find this book unusual and I'm completely engrossed it. Not one I had heard of so grateful thanks to gransnet for this opportunity.
Now eagerly awaiting the next book by this wonderful writer.
Saira, are you a chef too, like your heroine?

thatbags Wed 19-Feb-14 21:15:49

I found the beginning hard but the characters are growing on me and I want to know more about them. The story is fascinating. I love the little details about Rose Donnadieu and about the Maquis.

I haven't thought of a question yet, but I may yet.

thatbags Wed 19-Feb-14 21:16:17

Two yets. Oh dear.

happysouls Sun 23-Feb-14 17:24:22

Thanks for sending me a copy! I really enjoyed it, gripped! I found that I was willing the characters to do (or not do!) certain things throughout and was also mentally pondering each of the options at each stage and thinking through how it might turn out if the book took that direction. Thought provoking. I liked the humour and the bluntness of some of the options, it didn't shy away from anything or try to gloss it over. I would never choose to read a real life memoir with this subject matter, but as a work of fiction it worked for me. Thankyou to Saira Shah and I wish you and your family all the very best.

penguinpaperback Mon 24-Feb-14 10:22:57

I read this piece by Saira yesterday and thought anyone who has read her book might be interested.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:41:32


Thank you for my copy of The Mouseproof Kitchen. It was a great, addictive read and as mentioned in other posts, very thought provoking. I had questions for Saira but having read the article in the above link they've already been answered. I love the title of the book - it hints at some things you can control and others...?? No chance! Sending special thoughts to Saira, her family and her friends. Will there be a sequel?

Thanks so much for your lovely comments, Nonnanna. You’ve hit the nail on the head about the theme of just how much of life one can control. Anna is learning to let go and roll with the punches. I’m working on another novel now but it’s not about Anna, Tobias and Freya. I’d like to write a sequel one day though – perhaps visiting them ten years on!

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:43:10


I really did enjoy the book. I was able to understand the fear and tangled emotions of both Anna and Tobias as they struggled to cope with their baby. I worked for many years with young people (not babies) who had severe learning and physical disabilities, and so many of the parents of these children and young adults spoke of their despair and frustrations when faced with the problems, both personally and with the authorities, that they faced on a daily basis and also how they sometimes fought against the final decisions to tube-feed their child. Some seemed to feel as if in allowing this, that they were no longer able to nourish their child themselves, which is surely a basic need for any parent.
I'd like to ask Saira one question (although the link that penguinpaperback was really informative). Saira, you have shown in your novel that your relationship with your mother changed as you recognised that you couldn't be parted from Freya. Did you have a similar relationship with your own mother as Ailsa was growing? I hope this isn't too personal a question to be asking.
Thank you.

Thanks for your comments. Yes, I wanted to deal with the things that are difficult sometimes to express about disability: that you can feel a failure, you can be unsure as to how much you will be able to love your child. Right at the beginning, a primitive part of your brain (which probably helped our prehistoric ancestors survive) tries to do a sort of calculation in your head: ‘how much love and care can I afford to invest in this child?’ But of course life, and love, doesn’t work like that...

And in answer to your question - Not at all Marelli. Anna’s mother is a very different personality to mine. My real mother (who has recently passed away but who read, and loved, the book) was more accepting of Ailsa than Anna’s mother is of Freya. But the two mothers are parallel. Both of them are trying to make sense of what has happened. Some of the crazy things Anna’s mother says (such as “you can even train a slug”) were said by my mother. And like Anna’s mother, my own mother had a struggle at first to work out if her loyalties were with her daughter or her grand-daughter. All the rest is fiction.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:43:50


Thank you for the book I found it a compelling read. I would like to ask the author - I know that your daughter has the same condition as the baby in the book. What made you decide to fictionalise the story rather than writing a memoir about your own experiences?

I never meant to write a novel, or even necessarily something for publication. I started off keeping a diary – simply because there were so many awful things I couldn’t talk to anybody about. But gradually I started subverting my own experience as a way of cheering myself up. I explored how much worse things would have been if I’d been somebody who needed a very ordered life. Or if I hadn’t had a supportive partner. Soon I was writing a parallel version of events, happening to very different people. And then I began to really enjoy letting rip...I’d never have written a misery memoir. It’s just not me. I really loved writing fiction and now I want to write more.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:44:17


Hello Saira yes I too had read an article about your life and your daughter - part of me wishes I hadn;t because then while I read the book (which I thought was very good by the way) I kept thinking - is this bit true then? How much of it is real?

Ha ha – some of that is for you to guess! But I hope that it stands up on its own as fiction, because really this is what it is. Fiction informed by autobiography, because I do feel my own experience means I really did know what I was writing about.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:45:31


I've just finished this book which I read in 2 days as I was very into it. I hated the rats though! Surely there must have been something they could do about them? A Jack Russell for example?

I wondered what experience you had of living in la France profonde Saira?

Funnily enough, you’re the first person in Britain who has asked that question, but when the manuscript was shown to US editors they ALL asked the same thing – and one publishing house said they’d only accept the book if I changed the title because the word ‘mouse’ would put readers off! All I can say is that almost everybody I know living in an old house in the French countryside has them. I’m talking about big sprawling stone houses with lots of chinks where the critters can hide. Many houses are attached to barns and outbuildings. And rats are incredibly intelligent, very hard to catch. They’re not like city rats though – they don’t live in sewers and they mostly eat nuts and things they find in your larder. Actually the terrible rat infestation was something that happened to me years ago in a house I owned in Beaujolais. Every time I had houseguests the rats used to swarm and run around the kitchen. It was very disturbing. Once I killed one by slamming the door against the wall and squishing it flat. I tried to write the scene for MPK but it didn’t come out well so I took it out. The rat gnawing through the refrigerator cable happened in Beaujolais, as did almost all the rat-related things in the book (although the Nutella-eating happened here in the Languedoc). Rats are a very typical experience of living in rural France. A Jack Russell is a good idea though – maybe we’ll get one.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:46:11


As one who has had a rodent issue in the recent past...any tips in case the little sods they work out how to get back in?!

Gagagran had a good idea about a Jack Russell. Cats are supposed to work but the other day my partner saw our cat asleep in the pantry as three or four rats ran straight past her. You can get little sonic boxes that are supposed to hurt their ears, but they get used to them quickly so you have to keep changing the frequency. Apparently now you can get electric traps where the rat climbs inside and completes the circuit and is electrocuted...

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:48:08


Reading this wonderfully written book makes you realise how terribly difficult it must be trying to cope with a severely disabled child.
My questions are :-
1. Did you ever think of giving up your daughter ?
2. What was your reason for writing the book...for your readers....for yourself ?

In answer to 1...

Not seriously, but I remember thinking right at the beginning: “there’s a window now where we could perhaps do it, because later it would hurt too much.” For the novel, I pulled out that theme because I thought it was interesting. I also made Anna and Tobias further apart in their attitudes than my partner and I were because I wanted to explore what would you do if you had to choose between your partner and your child. I also wanted to show real parents of disabled children that it’s ok to think the unthinkable. I know families who have not been able to cope with their profoundly disabled child and who have given them up. In all cases they have been anguished and have genuinely felt they found them better homes than they could provide themselves. I would never ever judge them, and I get quite angry at people who sometimes do judge (often other parents of disabled children, who ought to know better). You can only cope with what you can cope with. When Scott and I didn’t sleep for about a year while Ailsa was having awful fits during the night, we might easily have cracked. I certainly thought of jumping out of the window. I wouldn’t like to be tested any further than that, but we might be someday. We don’t know what lies ahead.

And 2...

I think I’ve dealt with this in my answer to janet1952's question. It was a diary at first, strictly for myself (and my partner). But I began to subvert reality in order to make what I was experiencing a bit more bearable. The whole process took three or four years.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:48:59


I've just finished mine. I thought it was very readable, despite the subject being so sad. Tobias really annoyed me though! He seemed so lazy and uncaring. I know the author has a disabled daughter so she has more insight that I ever could. I didn't like it when they couldn't sort out the house properly. Why did Tobias buy a wreck if he had zero skills and just allowed the rats to have their way? I felt like giving him a good shake!

My incredibly supportive real-life partner Scott is at pains to point out that he is nothing like Tobias! But I feel like defending Tobias. Anna is pretty flawed too (so am I, but in different ways to Anna). I tried to make Anna more controlling, but more instinctively loving of her child, than Tobias. He is a naturally more relaxed person but he has to learn to love his child through experience. So Anna and Tobias’ paths switch in the course of the book. She initially bonds with Freya, then runs away when she fears she won’t be able to bear the pain Freya will inevitably bring. Tobias starts off trying to reject Freya. Then, as he gets to know her, his love grows. Finally he takes responsibility when Anna drops the ball.
That thing Tobias does - detaching, refusing to connect, pretending he doesn’t care - is a textbook reaction to unbearable emotions one isn’t able to deal with. Scott points out that in real life I was the one who retreated into my shed to write! But actually both of us had long phases of switching off emotionally.
We do live in a wreck though, and neither of us has any DIY skills – we bought the house before Ailsa was born, so I can’t explain that!

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:49:27


Thank you for my copy of The Mouseproof Kitchen, I am halfway through the book, and can really relate to this story... my grandaughter (who celebrated her 11th birthday yesterday) was born with Williams Syndrome.. the first sign that anything was wrong with her was she was born with a cleft palate, then they found she had a heart murmer... but finding out several months later that she had Williams Syndrome.. was a real roller coaster for my daughter and husband.. .I have often thought of writing a book about my beloved grandaughter Molly Ann.... but really dont know how to go about it....have you any tips for me.

Ailsa has a heart murmur too. You should definitely write about Molly Ann – I’m sure she’s brought joy and richness to your life as Ailsa has to ours. Just write down anything that comes to mind – then put it away and take it out months later to see what is interesting and what isn’t. Good luck.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:50:04


I was sure I had posted a question soon after I received the book so thank you again. I'm finding it a very difficult read. I disliked the parents intensely so far. I liked the Chanel 19. mother enormously and could see where she came from.i suppose I just dislike people who feel that they must have a baby and then expect all the help in the world for their creation. Oh let's run away and leave someone else to deal with it. In real life the French social services paid for someone to look after the baby while they had two weeks in Cambodia!I just hate that attitude. Then Freya's mother decides she still must have the perfect IVF babies. No self awareness at all that actually her genetic code may be the reason for the scrambled brains of the child. If I have any question it is why she does not think it is a misery memoir. I found it as depressing as Angela's Ashes.

Sorry it depressed you!

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:50:30


I finished this book last night and found it an interesting read. Like inishowen I found the character of Tobias extremely annoying.I couldn't understand why Anna would stay with a man that kept telling her to dump her baby. I also didn't fully understand why the couple thought buying a wreck of a house in France would be fulfilling, when he was such a self-centered man.
I enjoyed reading the interview with Saira Shah and was relieved to learn that her husband has been an absolute rock!
I would be very interested to know if Saira is writing another book at the moment.

Yes, I’m working on another novel at the moment. Set in British India in 1916 – a love story. Not autobiographical this time, but loosely based on family history.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:50:57


Question: How did Saira find the time to write the book whilst caring for her disabled child? Did she have lots of support? Was writing the book therapeutic?

Writing was definitely therapeutic. Actually it was one of the only things I could do while looking after Ailsa. In fact, I’m writing these answers with her snoozing in her pram beside me now. Sometimes Scott looked after her to give me time alone to write. Although if I’m honest, when I was alone I mostly just slept.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:51:31


Many thanks for my copy. I found it very thought-provoking and emotional to get an insight into the thoughts of those who suddenly find themselves with a disabled child. Like Tobias I have no idea how I would have reacted in the short or long-term although he deserved to have his head shoved into Anna's Lacanche Range cooker for some of his remarks and actions.
Can I ask Ms Shah her views on the way we look after disabled children in this country and whether we still try to make them invisible, subconsciously or not?

I think visibility is getting better. But I do notice people’s embarrassment nowadays when we’re out with Ailsa. When she was a baby nobody could tell she was handicapped and people would spontaneously come up and talk to me about what a lovely baby she was. That never happens anymore. Also, parents of normal children don’t think to invite her to their kids’ birthday parties and so on – they’re not being mean, they just don’t think of it. But Ailsa loves the sound of other kids’ voices – she sits in her pram smiling away. She thinks she’s chatting to them. I think it’s really good for kids – and adults – to be exposed to severely disabled people. They can learn that there is nothing to fear, or to dislike.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:52:37


Thanks for the book, like tttJay I'm not sure I'd have bought it either. I didn't read about Saira until I'd finished the book and having done so had lots of my questions answered. I did keep wondering; can parents really choose not to love their baby? Does it really get so bad that you would consider walking away? I guess you're planning for your daughter's future, how difficult is the knowledge that at some stage as she grows you won't be able to manage without a lot of help? Do you feel isolated from other parents and 'family life'?
On a practical level I too couldn't understand what you were living on during all this time in France, nor why you'd live in a place infested with rodents with a tiny baby - can you help us understand that?
Many thanks and good luck to you all, may you stay strong enough to face all that life may throw at you.

Yes, it can get that bad Cagsy, I’ve seen it plenty of times. And it may not be PC to say so, but there is a smallish window where you could emotionally choose to pull back from a severely disabled baby. About 16 per cent of newborn profoundly disabled babies are not taken home from hospital by their parents. I would never ever judge these people. They can only cope with what they can cope with. I never seriously thought of leaving Ailsa but when I was utterly exhausted I fleetingly thought of killing myself. When you can’t go on anymore, you simply can’t – and many parents of profoundly disabled children commit suicide, often killing their child at the same time. Personally, I think that in that situation it is much better to walk away, don’t you?
We now get a lot of childcare from the French state (it took two years to arrange even emergency care but now it’s great).
Moving to a wreck of a house with a handicapped baby is a matter of personality. In our case, we moved because stuff like that doesn’t bother us in the slightest. In Anna and Tobias’ case, they did it because their better judgement had been rocked by the shock of what had happened to them.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:53:03


I found this an interesting but very sad book.
Tobias really annoys me!

Did you plan to make him so irritating when you started out to write the book?

I don’t find him that irritating – but it seems I’m alone in that! Actually Anna annoys me much more than Tobias – she’s quite neurotic. I needed both of these characters to be flawed – not least to make me feel good about my real life self! Seriously, in terms of plot, I wanted to explore ordinary people, not saints, under extreme stress. Of course they behave badly.

SairaShah Mon 24-Feb-14 11:53:31


Thank you for the book which I read on holiday. Not really a cheerful read but very moving and so well put across, I really felt the emotions that Anna was going through, it felt very real, almost like a biography. Was it an easy transition going from the extreme career you once had to becoming a mother of a severely disabled child, and which do you think brings you the most fulfillment? I am full of admiration for both roles.

It’s like a different life. I adored reporting but I’d be happy never to see another warzone again. Writing fiction, travelling and being a mother is what I want to do with the rest of my life. Two out of three isn’t bad - travelling with Ailsa isn’t so easy. Still, I like challenges, so watch this space...