Sunday, 2 March 2008


If you’re looking for a little light, relaxing reading, don’t choose this one!

I picked up my copy at a charity book-stall last summer. I knew nothing about Kathryn Harrison, but I was intrigued by the quote from Natasha Walter’s review in the Guardian, reproduced on the cover: ‘I was transfixed, gulping it down, desperate to get to the end’ . . . so it leapfrogged some others as it made its way to the top of the TBR pile. And I too found it transfixing, compelling, unputdownable. I read it during the week of my birthday, and in some strange way the fact that the protagonists are almost exactly my age (as is the author) added to the intensity of the experience.

Will, a successful psychoanalyst, travels to the twenty-fifth reunion of the Class of ’79 at Cornell. His wife of 18 years can’t face accompanying him, so he goes alone. Not without some trepidation. He is estranged from his twin brother, Mitch, and anxious about the possibility of seeing him there. And then there’s the worry about how to respond when he meets former lovers. And how will he handle having to tell people that one of his two children – his son, Luke – had died a couple of years previously?

He does indeed get talking with an old girlfriend and in their awkward conversation discovers that something happened twenty-five years before which may have profound implications for him. Returning home, he wrestles with himself over what to do about this discovery. His relief about the non-appearance at the party of his famously heroic but disfigured twin invokes bitter memories of their relationship in childhood and adolescence. And all the while, though happily married to Carole, he can’t seem to stop the increasingly intense sexual fantasies which besiege him.

'He wants to believe that love can't make mistakes, but what he knows is that it's like water, assuming the shape of the vessel, always imperfect, that holds it. He's not a blameless father or a perfect husband, and though he's made a career of listening to other people's problems, he can't always respond with patience and insight. He does bear witness: this is a role as old as childhood, as old as his consciousness of his brother's suffering. He opens old wounds and binds up new ones, strips away defenses, shores up egos. To be paid for the work he craves seems marvelous to Will, a reason to give thanks - but to what, to whom? Because he's also a tortured agnostic, suffering spasms of private, even desolate, self-examination. Alert to coincidence and unanticipated symmetry, to aspects aligning in patterns, almost readable, he sifts, sorts, and turns the pieces, lays them down and picks them up in what amounts to an endless game of mental solitaire, occasionally drawing close to something that comes out neatly and looks like a grand and universal plan, a sequence of details in which, as the saying goes, God resides.'

Then one day a new patient arrives at his consulting room and a catastrophic sequence of events unfolds. The separate strands of Will’s life gradually reveal themselves as an inextricably tangled web of secrets, lies and deceptions, which profoundly rock his perception of himself and his family relationships.

What follows could be described as a psycho-sexual thriller – a tortuous unravelling of who did what to or with whom, and when, and why. Will is a likeable man with a sharp intelligence, but while he’s at the centre of this personal maelstrom he seems forever just one step behind the truth, his usually acute forensic skills deserting him when he has to analyse his own life more urgently than he’s ever been forced to do before.

Kathryn Harrison’s writing is as clean and precise as if wrought with a surgeon’s scalpel. Absolutely pitch-perfect and superbly paced. She handles her often disturbing and distressing themes - sexual and familial betrayal; suggestions of incest; the dark secrets at the heart of a 'successful' marriage; the ambivalence of twinship and shared DNA; the death of a child; and the purpose of psychoanalysis - with a sure and unflinching sense of authority. The clarity of her psychological insight is as exhilarating as the craftsmanship of her writing.

My only cavil (and it felt quite a serious one at the time, though it’s faded now, since it is all that precedes it which really sticks in the mind), is that the ending was, for me, all too reminiscent of the worst kind of American movie – where everyone ends up grinning and kissing and making up and they all live happily ever after, however improbably; everything must end in a feel-good way or it won’t be ‘box office’. Well, yes, there is cause for optimism at the end of Envy, but as Will and Carole survey the devastation visited upon their relationship, forgiveness and reconciliation will surely be more of a long haul than Harrison suggests, and a dangerously complicated one at that?

It was only after I’d read Envy that I logged onto Harrison’s website and discovered the extraordinary experiences of her own life which underlie the themes she explores in her writing. There is a wealth of author interviews and guidance for book clubs there, too. I don’t feel quite equal to tackling her autobiographical The Kiss just now, if ever, but I have put The Seal Wife in my overflowing Amazon shopping basket for one day.

1 comment:

60Goingon16 said...

You might want to try Harrison's The Binding Chair before you tackle The Kiss - that's if you decide to tackle it!