Top positive review
3 people found this helpful
on 27 October 2012
It is fair to say that this is very much a marmite book - you will either go with the flow, read and enjoy, or struggle and hate this intriguing novel. It employs modernism, stream of consciousness and the storyline (such as it is) runs between times and characters. The novel takes the viewpoint of two main characters: the psychiatrist Dr Zachary Busner at Friern Hospital and patient Audrey Dearth.
When Busner begins work at Friern Hospital he is allocated two chronic wards. This is a place of endless corridors, psychiatric orderlies who employ "thump therapy" and patients who wear canvas tunics, said to resemble a uniform "for a slave labourer". Busner has an embittered wife, Miriam, and young children. He also has a brother who suffers from a mental illness and an interest in patients suffering from the somnolent-opthalmogic form of encephalitis lethargica ('sleepy sickness'). This came before the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of WWI and Busner tells his wife about Audrey Dearth, a patient who may be one of hundreds scattered throughout asylums, who suffered the virus and have nothing psychologically wrong with them. Less than impressed, Miriam responds with a plea for him to show less enthusiasm and spend less time poring over patient notes and more with his family. Yet Busner visits other doctors who disagreed with the original diagnosis and attempts to investigate other patients with the same possible condition.
This novel veers between Busner's story and that of patient Audrey Dearth. We are taken through Audrey's life, from her childhood onwards and from Busner's investigations to his memories in later years. I know the building he writes about well, as I live near it, and thought he captured the sheer size and scale of the place beautifully. This is not an easy read - there is a place for both nice relaxing books and ones that require concentration and commitment. Although this book can be difficult at times - you need to keep your mind on the text to know who and when you are reading about - it is worth perservering with and it is enjoyable, with characters you care about, and it is the characters that matter in any novel.