Anna Bentz, an American in her late 30s, has moved to Zürich for the sake of her husband’s career. Bruno, a banker, is happy to settle back into the very suburb where he grew up, with his mother just around the corner. Three children later, Anna is highly dependent upon Ursula, although her mother-in-law could never be regarded as a friend. Treasuring solitude, Anna isn’t particularly skilled at friendship. Which is a problem, as she is desperately in need of a confidante. Her husband is emotionally unavailable. She loves her children but finds mothering a bore. Without a job, without even a driving licence or her own bank account, and inarticulate in Schwüzerdütsch, Anna feels alienated from her adopted country (p10):
Published in Britain on the same day as The Ladies of the House, I was planning to post my reviews of the two novels together, taken by the similarities of the titles and the emphasis on sex without love. But I found I had too much to say about Anna’s therapy on the one hand, and was so impressed with the novelistic depiction of a woman’s unravelling on the other, that I had to give Hausfrau a post of its own. (Unfortunately, I’ve ended up publishing this post a lot later than I planned to, having held back in the hope and expectation of linking it to an author Q&A which didn’t materialise.)
Like Mary Charlton, Doktor Messerli is a Jungian by persuasion, and one of those hybrid therapists I’ve often encountered in reading for this series. Like Peter Newbold and David McBride, she’s a psychiatrist as well as a psychotherapist, but I do think she’s unwise not to hand over the prescribing and monitoring of Anna’s medication to a colleague when she becomes her therapist. But is it therapy she delivers? Like Tom Seymour, Doktor Messerli professes that their meetings aren’t therapy, not, like Tom, because she thinks they’re “just talk” but because psychoanalysis is different (p123):
The intent of most therapy is to make you feel better. Psychoanalysis intends to make you into a better person. It’s not the same thing. Analysis rarely feels good. Consider a broken bone improperly healed. You must break the bone again and set it correctly. The second pain is usually greater than the initial trauma. It’s true the journey isn’t pleasant. Anna: it is not meant to be.
I’m not an expert on psychoanalysis, and especially not of the Jungian persuasion, but I disagree. There are therapies that are designed to make people feel better by covering over the cracks, including those currently prioritised within the NHS, but lots of psychotherapies, especially if stemming from psychoanalytic models, involve confronting painful realities that can make for an uncomfortable ride. But I’m not sure that, in revisiting an inadequately processed trauma, the pain is of necessity worse the second time round.
Doktor Messerli’s cold demeanour and little lectures on Jungian philosophy (interesting as the latter are to the reader) give their interactions the flavour of a tutorial with a particularly uncooperative student, but do little to help Anna open up (p30):
Psychoanalysis is expensive and it is least effective when a patient lies, even by omission. But analysis isn’t pliers, and truth is not teeth: you can’t pull it out by force. Her mouth stays closed as long as it wants to. Truth is told when it tells itself.
Yet I’m not convinced that Anna is in receipt of psychoanalysis. Instead of deploying the free association techniques we might expect, Doktor Messerli asks and answers questions, hectors Anna for keeping secrets (p62) and even dispenses advice presumably with the intent of making her patient feel better. Furthermore, I can’t see Anna finding the time for analysis – which, in my understanding, operates according to a demanding schedule of three to five sessions a week – with her mornings filled with German lessons and her afternoons in her various lovers’ beds.
But this isn’t a novel about talking therapy, whatever label we might assign it. In the acknowledgements, the author reminds us that Doktor Messerli is a work of fiction and, on these terms, she is a wonderful character, playing the role of antagonist more than confidante. Her aphorisms function somewhat like a Greek chorus, commenting beautifully on Anna’s psychological difficulties and the process of her unravelling (p128):
Grief that finds no relief in tears makes other organs weep
while leaving her as a woman stranded.
This is a novel about alienation, about a woman who lacks the love and work that keep us healthy, who tries to defend herself against the reality of her dependence on an emotionally distant husband and a culture she dislikes by engaging in extramarital affairs. Of course, this can only be a short-term solution (p161):
It is possible to lead several lives at once.
In fact, it is impossible not to.
Sometimes these lives overlap and interact. It is busy work living them and it requires stamina a singular life doesn’t need.
Sometimes these lives live peaceably in the house of the body.
Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they grouse and bicker and storm upstairs and shout from windows and don’t take out the rubbish.
Some other times, these lives, these several lives, each indulge several lives of their own. And those lives, like rabbits or rodents, multiply, make children of themselves. And those child lives birth others.
This is when a woman ceases leading her own life. This is when the lives start leading her.
When this happens, Anna’s ensuing despair is expertly described (p164):
It’s like having so much feeling in your body that you become the feeling. And when you become the feeling, it’s not in you any more. It is you … I can cook and shop and read and do simple math and I can cry and I can fuck. And I can fuck up. Can I love? What does that mean? What does that matter? What do I matter? All I ever do is make mistakes.
Don’t let my criticisms of the therapist put you off this moving and thought-provoking debut novel. For another novel on early motherhood, see After Birth. Thanks to Mantle Press for my review copy and to Naomi Frisby for drawing my attention to another fictional therapist.