Imagine you’re out for a walk one weekend and see a young man swallow handful of pills and jump into the river. Without thinking – or perhaps even as a distraction from the torment of your failing marriage – you strip off your heavy coat and plunge into the river to save him. Much later, after the ambulance has driven him away and you’ve sloughed off the river’s mud in a hot bath, you realise you’ve got the young man’s coat and, more to the point, he’s got yours, with a set of spare house keys in the pocket, along with a bunch of letters bearing your name and address. So you hot-foot it to the hospital to do a swap.
You’re surprised when the young man recognises you, not from your heroics at the river, but from your professional life as a clinical psychologist working with disturbed adolescents. When he gives his name, it all comes back: Danny Miller more than a decade on from the ten-year-old you assessed for his suitability to stand trial for murder. A year out of prison, he’s been given a new identity as a student in the city, but his evident vulnerability makes it difficult for you to just walk away.
Imagine you’re a prize-winning novelist with an interest in the psy-professions and some scepticism about their claims to affect change. You’ve addressed this from a historical perspective in an earlier novel, now you want to explore the theme more deeply in a contemporary setting. Tom, your psychologist, is developing as a well-meaning character with his own set of vulnerabilities: relationship breakup; some identification with his clients through a shameful incident in his childhood; and a narcissistic belief in his unique ability to help. When his ex-client, Danny, appears on the scene, Tom is going to be tested to his limits.
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I hope you’ll have a bash at my little survey: I’m genuinely interested in your views, even if I could be accused of setting it up with a bias against the choices Pat Barker made in writing this novel. But I do think it’s a real pity that she went for the third option in both cases because, if I could accept Tom’s behaviour, this would be a riveting and intriguing novel, exploring the themes of the nature of evil; the limitations of psychological help; society’s response to child murderers; the question of whether people change. Even on this second reading, with a vague memory of my frustration at the psychologist’s unprofessional decisions, I was full of admiration for both the style and plotting all the way to page 18, when Tom invites Danny to his home.
Despite repeated reminders that the conversation between Danny and Tom isn’t therapy, it’s remarkably similar. When Danny says:
what I don’t seem to be able to get across is that I don’t want therapy. I don’t want to “feel better”. I simply want to know what happened and why. (p58)
Tom doesn’t challenge him, as if he doesn’t quite know what therapy is either, later telling a colleague:
He’s made it perfectly plain he doesn’t want treatment. He just wants to talk (p82)
That would be all well and good, if Danny were a friend, but with a former client there can be no such thing as “just talk”. Even in a clinic setting, this would be a risky endeavour. Yet Tom launches into the arrangement without supervision, offering absolute confidentiality (p78), although this doesn’t extend to the tête-à-têtes with Danny’s probation officer in the pub! With such a cavalier approach to his work, I found Tom’s irritation with Danny’s use of his first name – instead of the more formal Dr Seymour – a bit rich: that should have been the least of his worries.
I was also amused when Tom’s boundary violations echoed some of those demonstrated by other flawed therapists in this series, as if they’d all been trained the same dodgy institution. Like Gabrielle Fox in The Rapture, Tom has a lax approach to case-note security, leaving a file with photographs of the murdered woman “spilling out” on the back seat of his car (p79). Like David McBride in The Other Side of You, he offers his client a glass of whisky at the start of the session (p49). Still, none of them are as wacky as Miranda July’s psychotherapist, Ruth-Anne. But if you’re considering writing a fictional therapist yourself, why not save yourself from my criticism by consulting my post on How to create a convincing fictional therapist before you begin?
The tinkle of running water signalled we’d strayed from our route. By a long stretch. Emerging from the trees, I snatched the map from his hand, struggling to match the pattern of coloured lines with the landscape up ahead. He sat on a rock and bent to unknot the laces of his boots. “We haven’t time to hang about,” I said. The sun already sat low in the sky.
Anger gripped me, until I looked where he was pointing. On a branch overhanging the river perched a kingfisher, regal in its electric-blue coat. Worth the detour, after all.