Monday, November 01, 2010

Salley Vickers, Connie Willis, and What I'm Reading Now

Salley Vickers, a former psychologist and English professor, is a thoughtful novelist whose work may not be everyone's cup of tea. She writes lovely prose yet parts of her amazing novel, The Other Side of You, are necessarily dull to portray the colorless, emotionally crippled  narrator, David McBride, a psychiatrist, and his sad patient, Elizabeth, a failed suicide.   Eventually the novel metamorphoses into a suspenseful tale of psychological catharsis. Every line, dull or intriguing, is illuminating.  This is one of the most perfect novels I've read this year.

David, the narrator, known as Davey, is a moderately successful psychiatrist-psychoanalyst who does not expect too much.  Moderation is his hallmark and he is only moderately engaged by his wife, friends, and profession. This holding back has been an aspect of him throughout childhood and adulthood and seems to distance him from events. Traumatized at the age of five by the death of his older brother, who stepped out into traffic and was killed by a truck backing up, David has never recovered or quite found out who he is.  He reads Jane Austen--often, except in chick lit books, literary shorthand for someone who needs control--and tries to control the professionally forbidden human urges which lead him to wish to console his patients with pats on the shoulder.

"At that time, Jane Austen was my staple reading, a bulwark, I dare say, against my more disturbing professional encounters.  For me to think of someone as a character in Jane Austen was a compliment.  But, truth to tell, psychiatric patients are not really Jane Austen people.  The Austen world has its quota of narcissists, hypochondriacs, low-grade psychotics, and the marginally depressed.  But none would fetch up in a psychiatric unit."

His patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, originally characterized as a dull, gray, and shadowy woman, eventually dominates the novel.  Pretty but wan, she has attempted suicide because of a love affair which she failed to pursue.  His comments on an index card describe her perfectly:

"Cruikshank, Elizabeth.
Elegant. Guarded.
Azure blue. Swallow.
A hinterland person."

And her story intrigues him.  She meets Thomas, the love of her life, a man she knew many years ago, en route to Rome on some family business.  She is middle-aged and married, unable to leave her husband, but the two soon become a secret inseparable couple.  Thomas is an art historian, an expert on Caravaggio, and the paintings of Caravaggio play a great part in the novel.  Because David, too, is a fan of Caravaggio, whose torturous paintings mean something to both of them, he is able to help her.

And he breaks the rules of psychiatry, as far as I can tell, by spending many hours with her one evening, even drinking whisky together, because he is so intrigued by her.  They do not have a sexual relationship.  Yet there is a strong bond between them.  Davey is a very kind man, loved by his patients, but this relationship helps to heal not only Elizabeth but to heal him.  And what happens is very surprising.  

I loved this book and want to read her newest, Dancing Backwards, the story of a recently widowed poet on a transatlantic cruise to New York.  I love cruise novels:  it all started with Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Hope.

Other reading:  I am finishing Connie Willis's All Clear, the sequel to Blackout.  Willis's ostensible time-travel World War II series reads as much like a compelling historical novel as it does science fiction. In 2060 Oxford historians travel back and forth in time; the main characters happen to be doing research on England in World War II. Her characters are unforgettable and their lives riveting, as they become more and more involved with the past: Eileen, a sensitive, responsible young woman, takes care of hoydenish evacuees in Lady Caroline's mansion and is quarantined for so many weeks when the children come down with measles that she somehow can't get back to 2060; Polly, determined to study Londoners' reactions to the Blitz, finds herself incredibly attached to the other people in the bomb shelter and to friends in a department store where she works; Mike is dropped miles away from Dover and ends up by accident at Dunkirk, where he believes he may have saved someone not intended to be saved and changed history; and Mary as an ambulance driver is uncertain whether she has been given the right times and days of bombings (so she won't be hit) or the false ones the government put out to fool the Germans. All are trapped in the 1940s, and All Clear wraps up the story.

What Else I'm Reading: I'm still reading Dr. Zhivago.  I absolutely love this new translation and hope to finish it soon though, as you can see, I have some other books going too.  I also look forward to watching the movie again.  


StuckInABook said...

I have been meaning to read Sally Vickers for about five years now, and have three of her books... somehow the moment has yet to come!

Frisbee said...

I love this book and her others may be even better. our library has them: a miracle.

Tony S. said...

A Salley Vickers fan here. I've read two of her novels, thought both were wonderful.

Frisbee said...

So glad people know her work. She's new to me.