The jumping off point of journalist Edel Coffey's début novel Breaking Point is the stuff of nightmares: a parent forgets that their infant is in the car and the child dies. It’s a truly terrifying notion for all parents and, as Edel told Ryan Tubridy, it’s more common than we might think:
"It happens anywhere between thirty and fifty times a year and actually it happened again when I was writing this book to a man in New York."
The vast majority of reported cases are in the US, but it has happened in Ireland as well:
"It happened here in 2017 and at that stage my youngest child was six months old... And when that happened, I just remember getting this – I felt like I went into shock, as I’m sure a lot of parents did who heard that story. I just felt, that could happen to me."
Edel feels that what happened here in 2017 could happen to any parent of an infant. You’re sleep-deprived, you’re under pressure, there’s just so many things going on. As Edel puts it:
"It was just this running, running, running. I felt like I could taste adrenalin in my mouth the whole time."
The first inklings of the story came to Edel when she moved to Galway where her husband lives and began dealing with the whole hectic mess of being a family. As happens to a lot of new parents, the whole life-changing nature of having children was a culture shock for Edel:
"I was just in a state of shock the whole time. I couldn’t believe that it was so hard and that it was so busy – and at times it was so incredibly boring and not intellectually engaging in any way – and I also couldn’t believe that there was so little support. I felt like, 'How can this be possible that we’re living like this and we’re just thrown into this situation where we’re looking after children, we’re trying to do our jobs, we’ve just got to keep up the pace, you know?’ It’s like somebody keeps throwing balls at you and you just have to keep juggling more and more balls."
Everybody Edel knew was living like this, even those without children. And the news story from 2017 cemented in her mind how our always-on culture is so wrong and made her determined to write about it.
"When I heard that news story, I just thought, ‘That is so emblematic of every single thing that is wrong with this culture, this always-on culture. We are at breaking point. There is no contingency.’ And I just started writing because I was so terrified."
The novel tells the story of two women who are close to or have reached their own breaking points. Suzanna, better known as media personality Dr Sue, is a high-flying doctor, parenting guru and author of how-to books. She’s talented, beautiful and seems to have it all. Then there’s Adelaide the journalist who has a bit of a past that she’s running away from. One morning Dr Sue is driving to work when her schedule changes and she forgets her child is in the car until it’s too late. There’s a trial which Adelaide is covers and that’s how the two women’s stories intersect.
"The title reflects as well the way we live now which is what I wanted to write the book about. It’s like this breaking point that we all seem to be at."
There are usually two types of reaction from people when they hear of something like Dr Sue’s case happening. The first is how Edel herself reacted when she heard the news of the tragedy in 2017: that could happen to me. The second is more judgemental: that person isn’t a fit parent:
"The judgement thing is really interesting and I did want to go into that a bit with the book because, you know, I suppose Suzanna is on trial, but really motherhood and womanhood is on trial as well because there’s just so much judgement."
Our always-on judgement culture under the microscope from Edel Coffey – it sounds like a winner. You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Edel by going here.
Breaking Point by Edel Coffey is published by Sphere.