Monday 4 March 2024

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: WHEN THE DUST SETTLES by Lucy Easthope


"For the lay reader this is an extraordinary book. For a writer it is gold."

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series at Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. More recently she has written fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies. Her first title under that name, The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan, was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne. Both titles are set during the English Civil Wars.

I don’t usually review non-fiction. Not because I don’t read it. I read a lot for research but perhaps that’s it. I tend to review the novels I read for relaxation, while non fiction, however interesting, for some reason gets lumped with work, which is very unfair. This book, by Lucy Easthope, has propelled me out of my curmudgeonly attitude and made me determined to review more of the excellent non-fiction out there. In addition, this book would be a brilliant resource for many novelists. How could I not review it?

I came across Lucy Easthope’s name when I saw she had been booked to appear at our local Stroud book festival in November 2022. The strapline on the book is “Stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster.” That intrigued me, and I booked tickets. It was electrifying! Lucy is a very engaging person. Cheerful, and yes…funny; a great speaker and absolutely devoted to her career in disaster management. But there’s much more to her than that, and she also seemed comfortable in referring occasionally to the ups and downs in her personal life. I learnt a lot that evening and my partner queued afterwards to buy a book and get it signed. I asked if I could borrow it some time but for that most prosaic of reasons, forgetfulness, it just didn’t happen. A year drifted by, then one day I happened to notice the book on his table.

“Oh! I meant to read that,” I said. “I’m going away on a writer’s retreat soon. Do you mind if I borrow it now?” And so I did.

Lucy Easthope has an engaging style and I was instantly hooked. She was telling me so much that I didn’t know. What a disaster expert is, for starters. And, chillingly, what the dust in the title can refer to. So much important work is done, even months and years after a disaster, analysing the dust created in a disaster such as the twin towers in the USA. Loved ones left behind want and need a body to say farewell to, but of course this is often impossible. DNA testing of such dust and fragments can result in tiny particles being found and identified long after the initial trauma has passed. Families are left with the horrific prospect of receiving minute amounts of matter several times, sometimes years apart. Then they have to decide whether to have yet another funeral to honour the person they loved and lost. One thing Easthope feels very strongly is that the people left behind have to be considered much more. What is vital to her is to help a person and a community to begin to recover, or at least start to move forwards.

In the hours and days after a disaster, whether a plane crash, a tsunami, a terrorist attack or a fire, multiple agencies swing into action. Police, ambulance workers, firemen, and all the science that goes with police work in a crime scene. We are all used to seeing these people on our TV screens and I had known that these things are rehearsed from time to time. Now I was reading an expert’s account of how what happens afterwards can make or break the recovery of those left behind. A blood-smeared cinema ticket could mean the world to someone who has almost nothing else to remember their loved one by. Such things, rather than being maudlin, can comfort, in the knowledge that the person was doing what they loved just before they died.

The blurb on the flyleaf of the this book tells us just how experienced Lucy Easthope is. She is the UK’s leading authority on recovering from disaster. From the 2004 Tsunami, 9/11, the 7/ 7 bombings, the Salisbury poisonings, Grenfell and the Covid 19 pandemic; she is the one who has answered the call, packed her bag and gone to support everyone involved. She holds authorities and government to account. She lets us see into the briefing rooms, how politics can get in the way and how simple thoughtlessness, or lack of understanding can make it so much harder for those left behind to begin to turn towards recovery. I am writing this during the Covid 19 enquiry. I have no doubt that Lucy Easthope will figure somewhere, unknown to most of us but vital to the process. For this was the overdue disaster, the one we really should have been ready for and weren’t.

For the lay reader this is an extraordinary book. For a writer it is gold. Between the pages we have an insight into exactly what goes on during, after and long after a disaster has happened. Any thriller writer who has a disaster in their plot would be well advised to read it.

I couldn’t take it in one breathless sitting. Occasionally it almost became tedious in the awful inevitability of what happens over and over again, although every disaster is also unique. But I was drawn back to it after a short break and never felt like abandoning her story. I simply had to read it to the end, and then sit and ponder.

Her matter of fact style helps to stop what she says ever being sensational or overwhelmingly ghastly. But we are dealing here with torn bodies and traumatised people. The people who pick up the pieces are so often heroic and almost broken by what they do. That Lucy Easthope is still standing is a testament to her desire as a young child, growing up near Hillsborough, to help, and she does this in spite of her own issues. We can thank her for thinking about us so carefully, and seeing through experience what works best to help us recover. We can all hope that a disaster never engulfs us, but if it does, she will be there somewhere: in the notes the recovery workers study, in the plans she has drawn up and usually in person, whether in a pop-up mortuary or a warm and welcoming place for families to gather. She strives to make sure the materials are there to ensure the proper collection and labelling of the remains of lives, so that eventually, those left behind can grieve and begin their own recovery. Little do we know how much we need her - so thank you, Lucy Easthope.

When the Dust Settles is published by Hodder.

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