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Friday August 23, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday August 23, 2013 MYT 8:17:43 AM
Review by MARTIN SPICE
FIRST there is the tale. Then there is the teller. And finally there is the book.
So let us start with the tale, which is an extraordinary and exciting account of a mother’s escape from war-torn Syria with her six-year-old daughter. It was on Wednesday, Sept 7, 2011, that Mostafa Assad arrived at the Cyprus home of Louise Monaghan and their daughter, May, ostensibly to take May to the beach.
In recalling the worst day of her life, Monaghan claims that she knew something was wrong from the start and that the husband she had recently divorced was behaving oddly. But May went off with her father and
Louise went off to work. When she called his mobile phone a little later on, there was no answer. When she went to the beach to find them, they were not there.
Mostafa, it transpired, had abducted his daughter and taken her to Syria, his country of birth. The timing was significant: the next day May was to have started at an international school. Mostafa, despite not practising the faith himself, wanted her brought up as a Muslim. His solution was to take her, despite
her having no valid passport and being on a stop list, from Cyprus and into Turkey, then out of Turkey and into Syria.
From this point on, Monaghan’s sole reason for living was to get her daughter back. At first this involved pretending to play along with Mostafa’s wishes and join them in Syria to reunite as a family, despite the recent divorce and the fact that Mostafa already had a wife and two children back home.
Whilst doing everything that she and her sister Mandy could to get official support and intervention, she assured Mostafa that she would join him. Getting into Syria was the easy part; it was getting out again with May that proved the tricky bit.
From this point on, the story is one of subterfuge, bribery, people smugglers and incompetent officialdom. It climaxes with Monaghan and May walking over mountain passes to reach Damascus and into the
relieved arms of the Irish Embassy.
So far, so good; it is an impressive act of courage and fortitude, a heartwarming tale of a mother’s absolute love for her child. And that, no doubt, is the story that Monaghan and her co-author wanted to tell.
Now for the teller. Stolen is a very personal account and it is also, as far as one can tell, an honest one. But it is staggering how many bad life decisions one person can manage to make. Monaghan’s relationship with Mostafa was clearly doomed from the start. Almost immediately after meeting her he proved to
be controlling and over-possessive: “Looking back on things now, I believe that from day one he was either following me himself or he had one of his friends or his cousin doing it for him and reporting back.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but even at the time her far more sensible sister, Mandy, saw straight through him. So did her father.
So did her friends. And even one of his own family warned her not to get involved with him because he was a bad lot. When they lived together she paid all the bills and all the expenses and he contributed nothing.
He used her car. He refused to let her go out in the evenings whilst he went out until the early hours of the morning. He swore at her and repeatedly beat her. He was abusive and controlling to an extreme degree. Yet despite just about every warning sign you could ask for, and knowing all this, she still married him.
On this level, it is almost impossible to sympathise with Monaghan and even less possible to empathise with her. She is startlingly naive, ill-informed, irresponsible and stubborn. Her complete lack of common sense even extends to her choice of clothes as she escapes from Syria: she has uncovered blonde hair, a short dress, tights and wedge shoes. Her redeeming feature is her determination to do what she believes to be right for her child, whom she clearly loves deeply. But, my goodness, she taxes the reader’s patience.
And so, finally, there is the book. Louise Monaghan wrote her story with Yvonne Kinsella, a journalist and friend. I can only think that their intention was to allow the “authentic voice” of Monaghan to take precedence over style, grammatical accuracy and eloquence. That would be my kindest explanation and excuse for a book littered with infelicities from beginning to end. To take but one example: the incorrect (though increasingly common) use of the first person reflexive pronoun “myself” as in “between myself and her father” and “May and myself jumped into the back of the taxi”. This occurs throughout the book, as does the excessive overuse of the word “lovely” to describe just about anything that Monaghan likes. It is one thing to opt for a simple, direct voice, but it is another to publish a work so clearly badly written.
So, there you have it: a tale more than worth telling, a deeply flawed teller and an ill-written and edited book. How much the last two features are likely to annoy you will probably determine whether or not you
submit to the tale. For me, it was just about worth it.
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