Reading Madeleine is a weird experience.
For a start – unless, of course, you are one of those “realists” who
think the book is just the simple story of an unfairly traduced and long
suffering mother – it operates at as many levels as a French symbolist
poem. “Choose your audience and write to it,” say the agents in their
guidance to celebrity clients but for Kate McCann this is no simple
task. She knows how many people there are at her shoulder as she writes
– Abreu, Amaral, her various police questioners in the PJ, Bob Small and
Detective Sergeant de Freitas from the UK, David Payne, and others, all
with their own knowledge of the events she describes.
She has the silent presence of her constituency of supporters to
maintain as well, always searching for an approach that will keep them
onside – did that sound too happy? Is my love for Madeleine coming
across strongly enough? I mustn’t sound too vain – as well as the
note-takers on the skeleton crew still keeping the case open at
Leicester police headquarters. All of them must somehow be satisfied.
The major chord, as it were, of the surface Readers’ Digest narrative –
the only one that will be perceived by some of her less sensitive fans
– dominates this series of undertones, one for each individual or
constituency. It is a performance on a colossal scale, a high-wire act
that must be petrifying her husband, evidence of an overpowering ego and
an immensely strong will.
The cultural poverty that she and her husband share and which makes them
describe – and, I think, experience – situations of extreme elemental
drama in cheap soap-opera terms makes one hesitate before admitting that
Shakespeare frequently comes to mind. Yet the sheer power and
determination with which she sent hope and strength coursing back into
her husband’s limp, sobbing body on the night of September 6, for
instance, is that of Lady Macbeth in its purest form. She is an
Whether she is quite sane, in the commonly understood sense of the word,
is another matter. When the PJ officers accused her of blacking out on
May 3, of not being in control of her actions and feelings, they were,
as I have written elsewhere, very close to the truth of what Kate McCann
herself describes in Madeleine – months of believing that she was
possessed by an alien force, “a demon”, and an accompanying sense of
seriously out-of-control fury, in other words psychotic, not neurotic,
behaviour. But they clearly believed that such behaviour predated the
evening of May 3.
Hers are qualities that inspire both admiration and pity. If only they
were the whole story! For the record of the last four years shows a
deeply unpleasant underside to her complex personality. It is not the
evidence she provides in the book of her obvious human weaknesses —
vanity amounting to self-obsession, a tendency to attack, sometimes
physically, those who provoke her, an obvious pleasure in being
indulged associated with a certain financial acquisitiveness: most of us
share some of those characteristics and worse. No, it is much more
serious: few people mean anything to her at all and those that cross
People who have helped or served her fare almost as badly as those who
have given her trouble. The experienced GNR officers who first appeared
on the scene to search for her daughter, less fortunate in their careers
than she, men of peasant stock on a poor wage in a poor country, are
treated with casual contempt by this erstwhile child of the Liverpool
slums: “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, she describes them mockingly,
“bewildered and out of their depth”. The ghost of harmless old Mrs Fenn,
who dared to be concerned for Madeleine’s well-being, is invoked to
receive a paragraph of gratuitous insult before being despatched back to
her grave; Justine McGuinness, having failed Kate McCann’s expectations
in some obscure way, is tossed aside like a bunch of old flowers.
This brings us to the last, and most extraordinary, aspect of Madeleine.
It is a strange and troubling example of a divided self, for while her
fingers tap out the repeated evasions and justifications of the last
four years, another part of her, through bravado, sickness, a damaged
self or her fugitive Catholicism, is busy subverting her words from
“The style sings of hope,” wrote a famous critic of the troubled author
F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, “the message is despair.” And something
similar is happening throughout Madeleine. Kate McCann cannot bear to
portray her daughter in the days before the child met her fate: she can
only approach her with displaced memories from an earlier time as
though, whenever she makes the attempt, she sees her own child’s face
staring steadily back at her and she has to turn away.
She makes only a lacklustre effort at assembling a convincing narrative
of that week, falling back instead on old cuttings as though she no
longer has the psychic energy to put forward a sustained and convincing
description. The Tapas 7, her supposed friends, walk the streets and
sands of Praia da Luz like spectres, not real people. Her handling of
the famous visit to her apartment by David Payne is riddled with
fatalism. Only after 10PM on May 3 does the prose spring to agitated
life— because now she is recalling real feelings of fear and turmoil.
But whether those feelings resulted from the loss of her daughter to a
stranger or something altogether more complicated but just as
terrifying, is open to question.
There is fury – that word again – throughout her time in Portugal at
what happens to her but it is as though she is shouting to convince
herself. And when she turns to the events of August 2007 it is simply
impossible to believe that she is really protesting her innocence; in
the August 8 interview with the police and that dreadful episode in the
apartment with Abreu and his assistant almost a month later, the truth
breaks through once more and the token claims that they were being
invited to plead guilty to something they hadn’t done are simply
overwhelmed by charged images that scream of guilt, most of all the one
in which Gerry McCann gives up and sobs at her lap like a child.
When Kate McCann writes of guilt — the guilt she admits at not having
protected the child, of the things she might have done differently, the
declarations ring empty, with no accompanying sense at all that she
really feels, or perhaps even understands, the true meaning of the
word. When she writes of her own innocence, in contrast, the mood, the
feel, the crucial scenes, deny her own words. The book is one long,
unconscious, confession, a cry for help.