The Definition of Us by Sarah Harris
This lovely novel ticks all the main boxes for YA fiction: tentative independence; the primacy of the peer group; sexual attraction; and learning to feel comfortable in one’s skin. It also questions the definitions of normality and mental health.
Although he’s peripheral to the young people’s road trip, I was particularly interested in adding another fictional therapist to my collection. Howard is a clinical psychologist who gives rather more advice and personal information than I would want him to, but I accept that adolescents might need a more down-with-the-kids approach. I had more reservations about his response to the teenagers’ quest to find him, but I won’t go into detail for fear of giving too much away.
On the other hand, kudos to the author for creating that rare thing: a fictional therapist who is actually helpful, human and humane. Given his centrality to the four main characters’ well-being, I thought they were remarkably sanguine about the sudden cancellation of their sessions; perhaps their concern for his well-being served as a defence against their rage.
Overall, a delightful story likely to provide reassurance to troubled teens and their parents in a credible way. Published by Piatkus in 2018, I bought my own copy.
The Lobotomist’s Wife by Samantha Greene Woodruff
At that time, in the 1930s, there were various treatments that could calm an agitated patient, but nothing that could return them to ordinary life. When Robert, along with Edward, a promising neurosurgeon, starts researching a treatment developed in Europe, Ruth is convinced they are on the way to a cure. Their mutual commitment to the work leads to a parallel romantic bond. Soon, they’re the perfect professional couple.
When Robert and Edward begin performing lobotomies on patients, Ruth’s father, chairman of the board and one of the hospital’s chief funders, is sceptical. But the media and medical world is enthralled. Ruth is sure her husband is a genius and, when Edward moves on to other things, Robert continues practising alone. He’s perfected a ten-minute surgical technique – known as the ice pick lobotomy – not requiring anaesthetic that accesses (and damages) the brain via the eye socket.
When I saw an essay about this novel on social media I knew I’d have to read it, if I could set aside my envy I didn’t dream up the idea myself. It’s well researched: Robert being based on Walter Freeman who pioneered the treatment in the US. For me, the novel’s strength is in Ruth’s character: I was totally convinced by her transition from perceiving her husband as a hero to her belated horror at his arrogant recklessness. What would you do if you discovered your partner had ruined countless lives?
The other central female character is Margaret Baxter, a 1950s wife and mother who finds herself struggling with domesticity after the birth of her third child. The contemporary reader has no difficulty diagnosing her difficulties but Robert – who takes her on for therapy as a private patient (but is actually as manipulative as many fictional therapists are) – sees her as a candidate for the macabre treatment originally meant to be reserved for the most severely disturbed.
Margaret reminds me chillingly of the first “psychiatric patient” I ever met. In 1980, I began studying for a PhD in the psychology of depression. Although I had no clinical skills, my supervisor arranged for me to chat to some of the patients on a psychiatric ward. I remember a woman who was too lethargic to leave her bed telling me she was scheduled for surgery (although lobotomies were rarely prescribed by that time). I felt uneasy that she seemed to blame herself for her depression when she had “a nice home, a nice husband, a nice family” but had no idea what to say to her. Ruth would have handled it better.
The Lobotomist’s Wife is published by Lake Union Publishing. Unfortunately the copy I bought myself was printed by Amazon which means the cover is thinner than average and won’t lie flat. Not a problem if you don’t want to keep your copy, but I do.
Working today on the prequel to my latest novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, I allowed my two characters to escape the asylum and go for lunch in a Wimpy bar. Although they enjoyed their first burgers, as a vegetarian there were other restaurants I’d rather have patronised. Yes, I like my bean burgers, but they weren’t invented in the 1960s when this scene is set.
That might have provided the impetus for this week’s 99-word story based on I’d rather be… Except that today is International Mother Language Day, which I’m honouring this year with a BOT, although I couldn’t shoehorn in the exact wording of the prompt:
When Mahfouz suggested they visit the book fair, Anne thought she’d choose a novel for the long flight home. But the books were in Bangla.
“Of course,” he said. “The fair commemorates the language martyrs. Students protesting about the imposition of Urdu from Pakistan.”
She had thought she’d rather be at the airport. Or browsing Foyle’s thirty miles of bookshelves in Charing Cross Road. But no, she’d rather be here in Dhaka in the February heat, among the pilgrims at the Shaheed Minar, celebrating their right to read, write, speak and sing in a language unrelated to her own.