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A Powerful Portrayal of Depression
on 24 May 2017
'Nothing Natural' received heavy criticism when it came out, with both feminists and male critics claiming that it condoned sadomasochistic relationships. Reading the book some thirty plus years after it first came out in 1984, I have to say I didn't see it that way - rather, I felt that it was a meditation on the terrible choices that women can make when they are depressed and feel disconnected from the rest of the world.
Not that Rachel Kee, the heroine of 'Nothing Natural', initially seems that depressed. She is divorced, but amiably so, loves her small daughter Carrie, and has a job as a tutor (primarily working with delinquent children unable to cope in mainstream school) which provides her with enough money to have her own flat, with a cat, and nice clothes. She shares custody of her daughter with her ex-husband, has a best friend she meets regularly for coffee, and enjoys her own company. So, when she takes up with Joshua, an unprepossessing but charismatic man who she meets at a dinner party, it is somewhat of a surprise that she is happy to let him hit her, have violent anal sex with her and insist on a very part-time relationship with no real personal ties. What, frankly, would be the appeal of this for any woman? Where Diski is very skilled is in gradually showing us why Rachel has made this choice - not only because of Joshua's charisma (which does, oddly, come across, even if he is also repellent), but because she doesn't really feel that she deserves anything else. The principal reason for this is that Rachel is frightened of intimacy, and wary of others - for reasons that go back to her childhood. Like her creator, Jenny Diski, she is the child of squabbling unstable parents who split up when she was ten; and like Diski her father abandons the family, while her mother descends into madness. Rachel, we learn, ended up in a mental hospital at the age of 15 and made two suicide attempts before she was 21. Like Diski again, she was saved by a foster mother - in Diski's case Doris Lessing, in Rachel's case the wise and compassionate Isobel Raine, a cancer specialist. But by the time Rachel found security in Isobel's house the damage was done. Even though she seems on the surface to have accomplished much: a job as a teacher in a comprehensive followed by the tutoring, an (albeit brief) marriage, friends and motherhood, deep down Rachel sees herself as someone unable to really connect to others, and not worth a serious relationship. Joshua's 'punishment' of her is, I think, really a way that Rachel can punish herself and work out her self-hatred and anger at the world. And eventually, this anger, and a deep, long-buried sorrow, will come to the surface with surprising results.
I felt Diski actually examined Rachel's situation with sensitivity and thoughtfulness - and though Rachel is not straightforwardly likeable, there's something about the way she's created that invites our understanding and compassion. True, there were elements of the story that I found slightly unsatisfactory. Joshua remained frustratingly elusive (for much of the time, he seemed a straightforwardly psychotic charmer, but the scene in which he breaks down weeping suggested a depth to his character that was never fully explored) though this may have been the point. I'm inclined to think that any woman as intelligent as Rachel would have asked herself why she was enjoying the humiliation and pain of whipping and anal sex so much, and quite possibly felt more shame than we see in the book, rather than just going along with whatever Joshua wanted. The end felt slightly rushed and I wondered at Rachel's exact motivation. I would have also liked to know more about her marriage and how such a disengaged woman actually made the decision to get married in the first place - and if she still got on well with her husband Michael, wouldn't he have featured more in her life? And there were practical matters that slightly puzzled me at times too - how Rachel could afford to live comfortably with her child and cat when she only seemed to be teaching for an hour or so a day, how Joshua always conveniently turned up when Carrie was away, why, when Rachel fell into despair, she didn't make more plans for the well being of her beloved cat. (There was also the slight problem that as the heroine was so like Diski in so many ways that I tended to assume the book was autobiographical - which it may well not have been.)
However, I have to say my interest and involvement in the book far outweighed any criticisms I had of it. I've rarely read anyone write so well - if with unbearable accuracy - about depression, or about cravings for solitude. The subplot, about Rachel's friendship with a delinquent teenager who she is coaching, was poignant and fascinating, and Carrie was a well-created child (hard to do in fiction). The immediacy and intelligence of the book indeed made me wish Diski had written more straightforward contemporary fiction, instead of retreating into historical or fantastical worlds as she tended to do in her later novels. But I'm definitely going to read some of her other fiction. I'm glad, if 'Nothing Natural' did have an autobiographical element, that Diski found happiness in later life, and a long-term partner. The novel leaves Rachel's future somewhat open - but I hope she did the same!