This is a novel about mental health, memory and how the fabric of families can potentially unravel – all rich subjects for fiction – and Susan Elliot Wright delivers them splendidly.
The Things We Never Said begins with Maggie waking up in a mental hospital in the 1960s unable to remember who she is or how on earth she got there. She gradually acquaints herself with her fellow patients and the staff ‘caring’ for them, having to learn (or is it relearn?) the rules and etiquette as she tries to recover her past. It’s a great premise to launch the story from, and the bygone era of chilly mental institutions and electroshock treatment (that seems to be used as punishment rather than therapy) are absorbing and scarily plausible.
Meanwhile in the present day, we meet Jonathan, a teacher with a pregnant wife and aging parents. His first challenge in the book is to find a way to tell them they’re going to be grandparents. There’s no obvious reason why they’d be unhappy about it, it’s simply a case of Jonathan choosing his moment . . . And yet this becomes but one of several things various characters leave unsaid, or have difficulty finding the right words for, and naturally their lack of communication has consequences.
The Germans have a term, Weltschmerz, for the sadness felt when one realises the world cannot match the ideal of one’s mind. This is what Jonathan is going through. He is in crisis because he cannot accept his father for the barbed and distant man he is; and, when he learns an uncomfortable truth, is drawn into a spiral of anxiety and unseemly behaviour that threatens his job and relationship.
While Maggie’s far more dramatic break down is exacerbated by the prejudice and ignorance of post-war Britain, Jonathan’s issues have a distinctly modern flavour: binge drinking, pent up rage, the ups-and-downs of marriage and imminent fatherhood, not to mention the stress of being embroiled in a workplace investigation. The comparisons and contrasts drawn out between the two eras are subtle, and cleverly done.
Some of the most touching portions of the novel, past and present, take place when it snows, a detail not even hinted at by the cover design. Perhaps it’s because I read this on trains in December on my way to and from family visits, but there’s something very appropriate about the author’s choice here: the quietness of snow; the numbing cold; the way it disguises familiar landscapes; the connotations of Christmas, sentimentality, journeys and reconciliation. It’s probably not the easiest angle to promote a debut novel from, but this is an excellent winter read.
The themes in The Things We Never Said are treated knowledgeably, but gently, and I was swept along by Elliot Wright’s assured storytelling. An ideal choice for readers of genealogy mysteries.
The Things We Never Said by Susan Elliot Wright
Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, May 2013
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