‘All these years, there have been things I cannot remember’
In many ways I got more out of reading McCleen’s harrowing, bleak and beautifully written book on madness and faith after finishing it, whilst the questions it raised continued to challenge and linger in my mind.
Madeline, the central character and narrator has been resident in a psychiatric hospital somewhere in England, for more than 20 years, since being admitted, bloodied and in wild confusion at the age of 14
Now a recently appointed new doctor, Doctor Lucas has been appointed to clean up the asylum and its inmates, and produce meaningful statistics to show his methods work. He decides to fast track the long-term, seriously ill patients with combinations of treatment approaches designed to provoke catharsis
Madeline was the daughter of proselytising Christian fundamentalists. Her father, particularly, seemed more closely related to some of the American, separatist sects who hearken back to previous centuries. The family have moved to a small island, somewhere off the coast of Great Britain. Her father, a man who becomes progressively more fearsome and implacable to the young girl, is nonetheless a figure of derision to the local community, who, if believers at all, are of a more moderate and easy kind, and do not wish to be burdened by fervent attempts by what appear to be glassy-eyed zealots, to offer salvation
The reader knows from the start that something traumatic and terrible happened to Madeline, aged 14, and because she has been institutionalised, it was probably something she did, rather than something done to her. We know her mother is dead. We also know at the start of the novel that something……strange seems to have happened to the powerful new doctor, as the novel begins with Madeline meeting a NEW new doctor, who will be changing her treatment.
In many ways, enough hints are dropped during the book for the reader to spot the trajectory. WE might be fairly clear about the awfulness of the shocks and revelations to come – but the point of the journey isn’t for the reader to discover ‘what happened next’ but for us to discover how Madeline will be affected by what she discovers of her own, deeply buried and forgotten history, which was so traumatic that she has retreated from it into a twenty year amnesia.
It is Doctor Lucas, a man in his own way as deeply fanatical and fundamentalist about the implacable rightness of his methods and ideologies about psychiatric medicine as Madeline’s father was about religion, who begins to push down the barriers of Madeline’s forgetting
What fascinated me about this story was the unspoken questions and answers about the psychology of those with unshakeable beliefs in their own rightness. McCleen (who was herself brought up in a Christian fundamentalist family) for sure shows us that Madeline and her parents are damaged and damaging by the fierceness of their beliefs. But there are clear parallels between the damage caused by the man of religious faith who cannot be wrong and the man of scientific methodology who cannot be wrong. There is a kind of pathopsychology which is equal and opposite in both.
Hypersensitive to something transpersonal and numinous, Madeline is fragile by both nurture and by nature. She hears too much the hidden voices in wind and water, as it were, and is not enough aware of the materiality of wind and water.
This is, without a doubt, a deeply lacerating, sorrowful, and painful book.
However, it is also stunningly beautiful in places – Madeline’s fragility and sensitivity give her a sense of wonder and poetic engagement to that which cannot purely be reduced to matter. She has a kind of joyous, romantic, Pantheistic immersion in life-in-the-landscape.
The land was glowing at the edges, catching light here and there as if someone was running with a burning branch and touching life into it. That morning, I felt it was being presented to me, and each day, for quite a long time after that, waking up was like being a gift that I tore open again and again. We each tore it in our different ways
McLeen’s book has left me thinking a lot about the particular dangers of an implacable sense of rightness, the midline of complexities and discomfort which are the lot for those who accept a world without unswerving certainties, and, on the other end of the spectrum, those for whom the absence of any possibility of any certainties may be such a terror that it drives them towards those who admit no questions or doubts at all.
I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK