Some books grab your attention straightaway, while others take time to release their impact on the reader. This is one of the latter and probably will appeal mainly to dedicated review readers rather than the casual passer by. I would ask for five minutes of your time though, if only to say 'consider this'
I came across the book while looking for something a little different to my normal reading and something to match my mood that currently is veering to the side of a deeper read than normal. This looked a little intense by the cover and the synopsis does suggest a melancholy subject but these often reveal a worthwhile read and so I brought it back from the library and read it overnight.
The author, Salley Vickers, is new to me but her previous books have some terrific write-ups. I also liked the way the author says she is ordinary when her previous career path took the path of artist's model, teacher, a lecturer in literature and a psychotherapist turned writer, with three previous books to this one, all well received and recommended by the serious critics. In fact I do feel more than a little trepidation trying to do justice to the book, but I'm sure the author would understand.
Dr David McBride is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a small private practice and a larger round at two hospitals. When a failed suicide, Elizabeth Cruikshank, is admitted to his Brighton clinic he is unsure what to make of her. She appears to be middle-class yet is not a paying client. Her attempt was classed as a serious one, rather than a cry for help and but for a neighbor she may well have succeeded. David finds her enigmatic and takes his time with their talking sessions, her choice of therapy rather than by taking medication. Mysteriously reticent she poses a problem as all attempts at drawing her out are met with silence. Then a passing remark on a painting animates Elizabeth to talk about art and they both have an interest in the Italian artist Caravaggio and in particular a certain painting.
As her story unfold over a period of time David finds he is starting to question his own problems, in particular his sterile marriage and his own background of some depression. While he starts to make strides in helping Elizabeth, he makes some choices on another patient that proves a wrong one, leading him to consider just how much his own life and choices appear to have changed over time. In one long day and evening spent in deep conversation with Elizabeth, she opens up fully and David is faced with a dilemma, just how much he has come to like and respect his client.
Talking as Therapy.
Suicide and depression are huge vital themes to make a book out of and the author is obviously well qualified to make that work. So it's no surprise that a lot of the book is about one person's life story, filtered through the strain of depression. I would hesitate to say I know much about the themes, although I do suffer from clinical depression. By getting his patient to 'talk' through her reasons for her suicide attempt the story is surprisingly enjoyable and certainly not all about misery. Elizabeth may have made some wrong choices but she did have a love that most people would never know in a lifetime so it's no wonder she considered death as a solution to life. The story never becomes to heavy or detailed so the reader can set aside any concerns about that.
What does emerge is a rather charming but deeply moving story about the choices we make and how it's better to sometimes live spontaneously rather than live in perpetual mourning. The passages about art and the paintings of the artist Caravaggio may not appeal to all readers but you don't need to know a great deal about the subject to understand the importance it brings to the book. As we learn that some of the story is set in Rome, so the talk moves from the depths of despair to a slightly intellectual debate about the artist and his own way of living. The artist Keats is also mentioned and several lines of a T.S.Eliot poem give rise to discussions with the author's title coming directly from the one line of a poem. I mention this as I love art and literature myself and this does add to the book's enhancement.
Patient and Therapist.
These are the main characters in the book and sometimes it seems that one blends into the other. Elizabeth is a married woman with children at the time she is talking about which is in retrospect to the suicide attempt. David is also married without children and not happily. Whether it is the outcome of the sessions that disturb the doctor's equilibrium is debatable, but it certainly has an impact on several parts of his life.
As characters they both have things in common and I don't think the book would work so well without that commonality. I thought Elizabeth to be a rather clever but staid woman and thought I would have acted differently to her. But that is in hindsight and how does anyone choose a course of action without knowing the outcome? I did find her hard to understand at times, especially when her suicide attempt was made after the story she tells has moved on. Did she think constantly about it or was the attempt made as life had nothing left to offer?
David would appear to have everything he needs apart from children. There is a reason for that choice but it's a plot spoiler and although you can find the reason in the first chapter, it seems a shame to give it away. I liked David's character and the way he interacts with all his patients, not just Elizabeth. If the story had been entirely about one person then it would be boring. Instead there are plenty of other characters, colleagues of David and Gus, in particular, makes you wonder if doctors are any different to us at all.
Personally I thought the book a triumph of learning how to live rather than giving in, but I do have some knowledge of depression. I think many of us do at times, but depression as a way of life is exhausting. I liked what the author brought to the book and found it hard to ignore her section at the end of the story from slipping into my review. I did manage it since it would seem wrong to allow some other's thoughts to decide mine. I was interested in her background and why she chose to write the book, but that is as far as I took it.
Whether it will appeal to other readers is something I can only guess at. It's not an easy book to review or sell to others unless it's a captive audience. I know the people who read my reviews are all very different but on the whole are extremely supportive, yet I do go from one end of the spectrum to another in my reading. I would say this is probably a thinking person's book and if you are interested in the world of therapy where the therapist is very human then this is something you'd like. At 271 pages in paperback it isn't a long read, but is a thoughtful read. I would definitely read another book by the same author, but in all fairness for the purpose of enjoyment can only give this four stars. I would love to be proved different.
My copy is a library one and was published in 2007. This can be bought on Amazon for £2.19
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