Hanging matter, Marion McLeod

The Curative
Charlotte Randall
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0140297537

This is an amazing and amazingly good novel. The second novel is supposed to be the hardest but any reader coming to this one “blind” would judge it to be the work of an experienced and extraordinarily accomplished professional. But first let me recall Randall’s first novel, Dead Sea Fruit, which took the Reed Fiction Award in 1994 and then went on to win the Best First Book in the Asia/Pacific section of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. The plot of Dead Sea Fruit may be in no way autobiographical: nevertheless the work reads like the archetypal first novel, autobiography dressed as fiction. It tells of two Dunedin families during the 1960s and ’70s. A good Dunedin girl myself, I recognise the physical and emotional territory, which seems largely unchanged from my memories of two decades earlier: the Tip Top and Cowell’s coffee bar, St Clair beach on Saturday night, the baking Mum and silent Dad, and the tissue of whisperings behind suburban lace. Though the narrator is omniscient, the book’s emotional pivot is Amelia and the novel is centred on her coming of age in a dysfunctional family.

The most famous Otago example of that genre is Owls Do Cry. I want to mention Frame since the prose of Dead Sea Fruit seems at times to approach the ripe, sometimes even overripe, flavour of a Janet Frame novel, teeming with metaphor and allusion, and taking us into the minds of several characters deemed mentally ill.

Frame’s second novel Faces in the Water employs first-person narrative to tell the story of a “season of peril” when her young woman hero is wrongfully incarcerated in a mental hospital and subjected to shock treatment. Charlotte Randall’s second novel covers similar territory: her inmate narrator equally believes himself to have been misdiagnosed. Don’t they all? But where Frame’s novel is set in 20th century Otago, Randall’s chosen asylum is London’s Bedlam, and her story spans the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Those differences of time and place are relatively superficial. What is much more amazing is that in this second novel, Randall abandons the “sub-Frame” style of her first novel. The central character of The Curative is in all respects a world away from the Amelia of Dead Sea Fruit. He is a Romantic, but a Romantic in cynic’s clothing: he is rational, witty and cynical in the extreme. Furthermore, in The Curative Randall has produced a gripping historical whodunit and much, much more besides.

What is a curative? The Concise Oxford – it’s useful to have a dictionary at hand for this novel – defines it in somewhat circular fashion as “a curative medicine or agent” and explains that it is derived from the Latin curare, to cure or to take care of. Both title and novel are full of harsh ironies. And it’s appropriate to refer to the Latin derivation of the word, since each of Randall’s chapter headings is headed with a Latin phrase. I imagine, however, that it is not necessary to understand these, given that at least one of the words in each has a close English relative, and their irony-laden meanings are all too graphically demonstrated. A mental asylum in the England of that time, during the reign of King George III, was not a good place to be. If you think the last century’s shock treatment barbaric, then you’ll learn here what a huge advance it is on previous “cures”.

The first of the novel’s three sections is titled “The Middle”, the second “The Beginning”, and the final “The End”. It all makes perfectly good sense, as does every detail of the novel so far as I can tell. And the mode of presenting time only very rarely halted my reading while I sorted out the time-frame. In the first paragraph our “hamstrung” (his word) narrator introduces himself in medias res – if indeed that term applies when there is very little in the way of what is usually called action: “My name is William Lonsdale and I am about fifty-five years old. But I don’t know precisely how I got here – which just goes to show how serious a temporary fugue can be.” The “hamstrung” is just his little joke – for William Lonsdale is literally hamstrung: he hangs on the asylum wall, is hosed down regularly with cold water, and fed unrecognisable pabulum. All he has for real sustenance are words and the narrative he can make of them: “the story where none exists or can exist is a fascination for me. And more: it is essential, the only way I can now exist for myself.”

William Lonsdale is a lucid and clever narrator of events – the absolute opposite of a Janet Frame narrator who can see the truth but clothes it in dense, poetic language. William Lonsdale was a successful, wealthy, polished man about town. He did not drift into his passive pose by virtue of an inability to act. He is not a true Hamlet, despite the similarities, and the frequent allusions. He is there, hanging on the wall in Bedlam, because . . . Well, I don’t wish to reveal exactly why and how he got there, since that would remove the wonderful element of mystery which Randall maintains till the very last chapter. For The Curative is a detective story of the first order; despite its absolutely static setting and its intellectual wordplay, its plot kept me (forgive the pun) hanging all the way to the final chapter.

William Lonsdale’s situation might well make a Samuel Beckett play. A solitary character, unable to move, is desperately trying to prove he is sane. Randall does what Beckett does and more, as her hero reveals, little by little, details of his past and the circumstances which have brought him to his dilemma. We enjoy the philosophising, the wordplay which keeps him alive. Horatio, his unspeaking cell-mate, Porlock, his warden, John Haslam, the apothecary and, later, Wakefield, a visiting Member of Parliament, constitute his only audience. His family has deserted him. For much of the time, he has no option but to talk to himself – yet another proof of insanity, of course. So that he does not crumble, William Lonsdale has to discipline himself to remember what he believes to be true. His plight and, moreover, his very identity in this madhouse become functions of memory, of story itself. For Lonsdale, there is only one solution: he must be patient, cling to his inadequate memory, and hang on in there.

Horatio is a name from Shakespeare, Porlock from Coleridge. Both Haslam and Wakefield are historical figures, and Randall can take it for granted that her New Zealand audience will recognise the second. In her prologue she tells us about John Haslam and his role as apothecary to Bethlehem Hospital from 1795 onwards. In her acknowledgements she pays tribute to a couple of books which cover the history of psychiatry in Britain. I’ve noted both in my list of “must reads” since the treatments which this novel describes are bizarre in the extreme, stemming as they do from the English preference for “the unexploded theory of revulsion”. Certainly, psychiatrists liked to have a bit of poetry in their diagnoses and curatives – otherwise, as Lonsdale surmises, “they fear losing a sense of themselves as coming from the educated classes.” If only for its presentation of 19th century theories about mental illness, this novel is well worth reading.

But as I said earlier, it is much more than a historical curiosity piece. I hope Charlotte Randall will not feel patronised by my prediction that when she finds a subject big enough for her to combine the emotional intensity of Dead Sea Fruit with the fierce intelligence of this second novel, she will produce an even more extraordinary work. But whether or not that happens is irrelevant for, in The Curative, Randall has written a truly exceptional novel.

 

Marion McLeod is a Wellington reviewer and literary journalist.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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