Before writing this, his first novel, Paul Sayer worked as a psychiatric nurse. Notwithstanding the disclaimer on the copyright page to the effect that no character or situation in the book bears any relation to any real person or actual happening, we may presume it is based on his very real experience of the patients and people who worked in the large, predominantly Victorian, mental institutions in the UK that pre-dated Margaret Thatcher's `Care in the Community'. His portrayal of the experience and inner thoughts of 33 year old Peter, who all his life has declined to communicate, is remarkable for its empathy and credibility.
The story both opens and closes in a large institution, but much of the action takes place in an experimental rehabilitation unit - where various attempts are made to coerce Peter into speaking and using his body - and in a long retrospective on Peter's childhood. Peter was born into a family that neighbors regarded as odd. They functioned successfully as a family for a while, and both his parents and his sister were generally kind and understanding towards him, but after they fell into debt and did a 'moonlight flit' to squat in an abandoned cottage on top of an eroding cliff, things rapidly fell apart. Mother went into mental hospital, in due course discharging herself in company with another patient, who murdered her. Sister Alison returned to live in town and after mother's funeral was seen by Peter just once, and that only very briefly. Father, an alcoholic, eventually took to his bed and died.
When living at the seaside, Peter one day discovered a toad lurking beneath a stone. It observed him, but made no movement. Peter replaced the stone. Later, he saw a girl carrying the toad, impaled on a stick. Still the toad observed silently, not making any move; to do so would have been to inflict pain on itself. The parallels with Peter, as he sees himself, gradually become obvious. He observes, but makes no sound; others intrusively observe him, he makes no move; he is trussed-up, subjected to many indignities, still he neither squirms nor makes any sound. Ultimately, he imagines how satisfactory it must be for the toad when its protecting, concealing stone is replaced. We finish the book thinking that in terms of comfort in madness, replacement of the stone is as good as it gets.
This is a disquieting book, very skillfully written. General lack of dialogue, Peter never responding when spoken to, is scarcely noticed as the action at all times moves purposefully forward. An excellent book from the 1980's, an award winner and best-seller in its time, that is most undeservedly out of print.