About the author and blogger ...
Anne Goodwin writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. She has published three novels and a short story collection with Inspired Quill. Her debut, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Her new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is rooted in her work as a clinical psychologist in a long-stay psychiatric hospital.
Following on from my review of The Fortunes, which fictionalises the lives of ought-to-be-more-famous Chinese Americans, I’m reviewing two novels featuring well-known European intellectuals at either side (in the temporal rather than allegiance sense of the word) of the Second World War.
Not really, of course! But I thought it would be fun to combine my reviews of two novels with “Everything” in the title, especially when both explore the nature of memory and require the reader to work a little harder to figure out who is speaking sometimes. Oh, and they both have blue covers!
The protagonists of novels are often called upon to act more heroically than they might have to in real life. So it can be refreshing to come across main characters who are as ordinary as the rest of us. Here I’m reviewing two novels about the loves and limitations of middle-aged men; the first in America and the second in the UK. Do these characters have enough oomph to keep our interest? Read on for my personal view. (And, for another take on masculinity and compromised morality, see my review of The Faithful Couple.)
Mired in marketing my novel, less of a shrinking violet perhaps, but still paddling in the shallows, I was pleased when the latest post from the Carrot Ranch appeared in my inbox this morning declaring that Charli Mills also has marketing in mind. “Marketing takes time,” she says. “You’re too damn right,” says I. But when the alternative is readers failing to find my novel, I accept I have little choice. Because when they find it, and let me know they’ve not only read it but loved it, I still get a buzz.
Today’s highlights have been a tweet from a reader who found my novel via a tweet of this photo by Rebecca Root and a yes from one of the quirkiest independent bookshops around these parts in response to my email nudging them to stock my book. Small gains, but they matter. As Charli says, “Being a marketer is like being a watchmaker. The gears do work, but you have to get it all aligned one piece at a time.” At the moment, I don’t even know what the pieces are, but I’m doing what I can to at least give them a chance of lining up.
In the year he fully expected to die, he spent the majority of his fifty-third birthday as he did most other days, listening to people complain about their mothers. Thoughtless mothers, cruel mothers, sexually provocative mothers. Dead mothers who remained alive in their children’s minds. Living mothers, whom their children wanted to kill.
So begins this engaging thriller about New York psychoanalyst, Dr Ricky Starks, who, the day before his summer break, receives a letter from a man who calls himself Rumpelstiltskin, challenging him to guess his identity. If he is unable to do so within two weeks, he must either kill himself or see fifty-two of his relatives destroyed one by one. Rapidly thrown into a state of terror, Ricky is compelled to cast aside his customary thoughtful detachment and act promptly if he is to beat his tormentor at his game.
Fifteen-year-old Jules is taken in by the cool kids at the arty Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp, or perhaps, this being the early 70s they’d be the trendy set. (Don’t ask me, I only lived through that period.) Whatever (which they definitely didn’t say back then, or certainly not in a flippant way), they are so in love with irony they adopt the name “the interestings”, not registering that even their irony can be ironic. The camp is idyllic, indulging the teenagers to believe in their talent. Jules, from a small town with small-town ambitions, still grieving her father’s death less than a year before, leaves convinced she can make it as an actor (or would it have been an actress back then?).
Dr Mary Charlton is “a fully qualified Jungian therapist, with a doctorate in neuropsychology and over twenty-five years’ experience in the NHS and private practice” (p39) who also claims to have worked as a clinical psychologist (p246), an unlikely combination to my mind but, knowing little about either Jung or neuropsychology, I’d better leave her to it. But she does highlight two areas not much addressed in this series on fictional therapists that merit a closer look.
While previous fictional therapists, such as Gabrielle Fox, Max Fisher and Tom Seymour, have worked with children, Mary Charlton is the first I’ve encountered doing so outside a team setting. Twelve-year-old Ben Dixon finds his way to her on the recommendation of a friend, who is also a former client (I know, boundary violation alert). Although Mary knows that she can’t work with Ben without parental consent, her willingness to take him into her office and let him talk about his difficulties before this is forthcoming and, later, to spend time with him outside her consulting room when the boy’s father has expressly forbidden it puts her on ethical dodgy ground.
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.
When I began this series of fictional therapists, I never imagined I’d encounter one who served, three days a year, as receptionist for a “chromotherapist” in the same office. When I wrote the guidelines for creating a credible fictional therapist, it didn’t occur to me to caution against installing a therapist in a building with such inadequate toilet facilities that clients, if caught short, would be obliged to relieve themselves into a used takeaway carton in a screened-off area of the office. But, despite her degrees in clinical psychology and, surprisingly, social work, I doubt that anyone would look to Miranda July’s creation for an insight into the machinations of psychotherapy and, while I found Ruth-Anne mildly amusing, she wasn’t as funny as the Lacanian analyst in The House of Sleep, so let’s dispense with her and move on to the more interesting aspects of this quirky debut novel.
Cheryl Glickman is a single woman in her early 40s, stuck in a rut as peculiar as you’re ever likely to find, yet one that resonates with more conventional lives. Living alone, she’s devised an ingenious, if obsessional, system for minimising housework and the despair that can ensue when the mess gets out of hand (p21):
Rachel catches the slow train into central London each morning. She’s come to look forward to the moment it pauses at a signal overlooking a row of back gardens to check whether the couple from number fifteen are out on the terrace. The cans of ready-mixed gin-and-tonic that she consumes on the homeward journey and the fantasy she has built up around the lives of this seemingly idyllic couple are all that are keeping her going at the moment so, when she sees something that contradicts her notion of their charmed lives, she’s thrown into chaos. Partly shocked, partly scared and partly exhilarated by the chance to be in on the action, Rachel’s efforts to help appear to make the situation worse. Why should the police, or anyone else for that matter, listen to a deceitful alcoholic? Subject to periodic memory losses and blackouts, Rachel isn’t even sure she can trust herself.
The conventions of psychotherapeutic practice have evolved to ensure the physical and psychological safety of both therapist and recipient and not for the creation of a page-turning novel. While some aspects, such as supervision and personal therapy for the therapist, have the potential to enhance character and plot development, others serve to minimise the jeopardy and tension that is often required for a good story. As I’ve discovered through my reviews of novels in this series some writers blur the boundaries through lack of knowledge, but even a former psychotherapist and a practising clinical psychologist have relaxed the rules of therapy when turning to fiction. Having discussed the limitations of the fictional therapist and how to overcome them with former psychotherapeutic counsellor, Kate Evans, on Twitter, I was intrigued to see how she had tackled the issue in her own debut novel.
St Petersburg, March 1914: Avrom Rozental has travelled to the city to take part in the World Chess Championship. Due to the fragility of his mental state, his minders have referred him to Dr Otto Spethmann, a renowned psychoanalyst. A widower with an adolescent daughter, Dr Spethmann is becoming overly involved with a new patient, Anna Petrovna, a society beauty and daughter of the powerful Zinnurov, nicknamed The Mountain. The psychoanalyst is also a chess player, engaged in a remote game with his friend and celebrated musician, Reuven Kopelzon, who he has never yet defeated. He considers himself one step removed from politics, until his office is raided and he and his daughter imprisoned on suspicion of concealing information in relation to a dual murder.
Zugzwang is a term used in chess to refer to the state in which a player is reduced to utter helplessness, obliged to move, yet every move is guaranteed to make his position worse. Replete with parallels between the logic of the game, the practice of psychoanalysis and the sociopolitical shenanigans of a country on the brink of revolution, there are many zugzwangs in the novel, leading to a climax in which Dr Spethmann is faced with an impossible choice between different kinds of love.
When Stella hears the doorbell one dark winter’s afternoon, she ignores it. After all, she isn’t expecting anyone to call and she herself never leaves the house. But her visitor, inadequately dressed for the blizzard conditions, is persistent. Reluctantly, Stella lets her in.
Torn between suspicion and compassion, Stella is ill-equipped to handle the duplicitous teenager who wants to see her husband. Does Blue need protection or is she out to do the couple harm? How much of what she says can be believed and is Stella strong enough to face the truth?
Moving back and forth between Stella’s present dilemma, a series of undated therapy sessions, and a complex case at the Grove Road Clinic two years earlier, the reader gradually realises what’s at stake. We come to appreciate the depth of fear that has led to her withdrawal from the world and the danger that still lurks at the heart of Stella’s supposed safe haven. This is an engaging psychological thriller about vulnerability, trust and webs of deceit, in the manner of How to Be a Good Wife.
In the midst of my writing, when I’m floored by a factual question to which neither Google nor my encyclopaedic husband can furnish the answer, he tells me to make it up. After all, it’s fiction I’m creating not the instruction manual for launching a rocket to Mars. While close attention to detail lends our work credibility, we should also cut ourselves some slack. It would be unreasonable to expect us to get everything right.
I’ve often wondered, as I’ve picked fault with my nine fictional psychologists and psychotherapists, if I’m being overly harsh. (I’ve wondered about that even more after reading a Catholic priest’s condemnation of John Boyne’s excellent A History of Loneliness in The Irish Times.) Surely it’s the story that matters above all else? While I’d defend the writer’s right to offend, many would prefer not to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. As M Kelter describes in his post Why Fictional Therapists Suck, inaccurate portrayals of psychotherapists in fiction can do real harm by putting people off accessing the help they need.
So how do you create a credible fictional psychotherapist? While I can’t offer the definitive guide, I can suggest, based on my reading and on my experience as both therapist and therapped, some pointers:
entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
some linked to a weekly flash fiction, plus posts on my WIPs and published books.
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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
ratings: 60 (avg rating 3.17)
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.67)