The Saturday Morning Murder by Batya Gur translated by Dalya Bilu
As a doctor, Shlomo Gold has seen numerous dead bodies. But that doesn’t minimise the shock of finding his own analyst murdered in what he took for an empty building. With no sign of forced entry, it must be one of the members. But who would want to kill Eva Neidorf just hours before she’s due to deliver a lecture? Eva is one of the most respected analysts, expected to take the helm once the current head retires.
Step forward police inspector Michael Ohayon. Once Shlomo’s explained to him the culture and rituals of psychoanalysis, he takes over the story, and Shlomo’s dismissed until towards the end. (That’s not a spoiler, although it did spoil my enjoyment of the story to engage with a character who disappears!) Countless cigarettes and cups of coffee later, the suspects interviewed and their testament verified by the (now discredited) polygraph, the trail goes cold, until … Now that would be a spoiler!
First published in Israel in 1988, and in English translation in 1992, I bought my copy of the HarperPerennial paperback for my series on fictional therapists and book group read. While I doubt you’ll find a better novelistic description of the gruelling analytic training, police procedurals (even those that highlight the parallels with psychoanalysis) are incredibly dull.
Kate Evans, whose own novels feature a trainee therapist, and have more to recommend in this, makes a convincing case for the popularity of crime fiction, but I’m not sure the human-interest angle applies here. It seems strange to me to focus on death as a puzzle, although I can see the attraction of the artificial sense of mastery over something we cannot control.
There’s a sliver of social perspective in the relations between the Jews and the Arabs in the (occupied) territories, and the descriptions of women (although not their roles) seem dated or as if written by a man. I don’t normally have anything to say about the quality of the translation, but a reference to an interviewee switching from the third to second person (p170) certainly jarred. I assume that in Hebrew, although not in English, the polite form of you is the same as s/he.
A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas
As the daughter of an alcoholic, it’s no surprise that Ruth would have attachment issues, which will have affected her choice of profession as well as her own parenting style. Cleverly, as with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Bev Thomas leaves the reader to make up her own mind whether Ruth is responsible for her son’s difficulties. Certainly, for all her insistence on treating her twins as a pair, she has perceived them differently since the day they were born, leaving the apparently more able Carolyn to mother herself while anxiously overprotecting Tom.
While both Tom and Dan are vulnerable, it’s the latter who is more of a Kevin but, even knowing she’s mothering him as a substitute for her missing child, Ruth is blind to the risks. In this she is reminiscent of another fictional therapist who is overly keen to help. While Ruth’s boundary violations are a lot more plausible than Tom Seymour’s in Pat Barker’s Border Crossing, I did wonder sometimes whether someone with fifteen years’ experience of psychodynamic therapy would have behaved as she does. But that might have been wishful thinking: Ruth’s compartmentalisation and denial – underestimating how much she’s affected by Tom’s disappearance and overestimating her ability to set that aside – is perhaps all too typical of compulsive helpers in a system that would probably collapse if staff adhered to professional practice guidelines and genuinely took care of themselves.
Unlike most fictional therapists, Ruth does have supervision, albeit not in a regular slot. But although she’s been seeing Robert for seventeen years, she still holds important data back. I also wondered about personal therapy, which isn’t mentioned although, working in a psychodynamic model and with her own mother issues, Ruth would have recognised its value, even if it wasn’t compulsory for her post. (Because the author is a former NHS clinical psychologist, I kept assuming that Ruth was too, although she describes herself simply as a therapist, so I don’t know what route she took to this post.)
Key psychodynamic concepts – transference and countertransference and, of course, given the title, Winnicott’s concept of good enough – are painlessly interrogated for the reader through team meetings, Ruth’s reflections and supervision sessions with a struggling trainee. I find it heartening that Faber – who provided my advance proof copy – have chosen a book that teaches as well as entertains for their lead debut this spring. (Although it’s a pity they’ve likened it to the vastly overrated The Girl on the Train.) As Britain descends further into Brexit chaos we should be mindful that it’s not only therapists who need to respect their vulnerabilities; anyone in a leadership position who denies her blind spots can cause harm while endeavouring to do good.
June update: Bev Thomas writes about the psychology of mothering on The Literary Sofa.
Did you know that I’ve now reviewed more than seventy novels featuring fictional therapists? My latest post for the Counsellors Cafe is on fictional couple counselling. By the way, I’m conscious that it might be confusing that I seem to be using these concepts interchangeably. In general, psychoanalysis is more specialised and intense than psychotherapy and psychotherapy is more specialised and intense than counselling, but all require a trained practitioner supporting people towards a deeper understanding of themselves and thereby finding unique solution to problems of living.