Robert Hendricks is a psychiatrist whose life is not very satisfying: he's not married, but having an affair in half-hearted sort of way, and that breaks up in the first part of the book due to a misunderstanding which he can't be bothered to correct. Then he receives a letter from someone who claims to have known his father in WW1, and who wants to meet him and discuss it.
This was another book that was beautifully written and a pleasure to read just because of that, without needing a story: although the story was good too. The narrative switched around from "present day" (1980) to Hendricks' time as a soldier in WW2, fighting in Italy - this occupies a large portion of the book - to his memories of his time following the war, when he worked in an institute investigating certain types of mental illness.
The whole thing doesn't quite weave together in the way I thought it might. But then, as Hendricks himself says:
Throughout my life I had thought that if I could get through this section of it, then the pattern of a destiny would reveal itself [...] and the likelihood, I saw now for the first time, was that my life would always be a chain of transitions, with no design to be revealed.
Some really nice bits, like when the teacher at Hendricks' junior school spoke to his mother:
"When we were over in France," he said, "I used to think about a quiet life teaching in the village. We all had thoughts about what we’d do afterwards. A lot of men used to think they’d go into business together or open a pub. I used to imagine a moment like this, when I might be able to open the door for a boy from the village. You don’t have to send him, Mrs Hendricks, but I think he should go."
Some of the descriptions of mental patients reminded me a bit of A Week In December, when decides to try and have a conversation with one of the patients rather than sedate him:
I didn’t get far with the facts or the stories. I managed to get Reggie to start off on who this Paddy was, but it seemed to breed another dozen tangents and dead ends. What was frustrating was the sense that I was reading random paragraphs from a very long book, out of order. The whole thing might be as rational as a Henry James novel; there might be a world in which it all made sense. It certainly did to him.
And when he's talking to Diego, who's schizophrenic, and trying to explain what it's like to hear voices telling you what to do. Diego has them turn on six radios, while they're role-playing an interview.
A short while after that the volume was such that I couldn’t hear Diego's question.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said," Diego repeated, "who is the prime minister?"
He asked something else, but even by looking at the shape of his mouth I couldn't make out what it was. The sound of the radio voices was more than off-putting, it was beginning to upset me.
Judith switched off the radios and pulled up a chair. The quiet was a relief, but I felt uneasy about what had taken place.
"So," said Diego eventually. "Who was the prime minister before Mr Churchill?"
"Yes, but you didn’t know that when I asked you just now."
"I couldn’t concentrate," I said. "The voices were too loud."
"That’s what it’s like," said Diego.
"Is there any difference between their voices and my voice? In the way you hear them?"
"No. Is exactly the same."
"And when your illness is bad?"
"Then they are loud like the radios at the end, just now. And they order me about. They swear, they say bad things. It's not just talk, like what you heard."
I thought about this for a moment.
Diego said, "Do you know that for the last minute you were trying to lip-read?"
"Was I? Well, it was because the noise was so loud it was my only chance of understanding you."
"That’s what it’s like."
A couple of bits made me laugh: this about Diego:
He had had some jobs as a waiter himself, but was unable to resist the instructions of the voices that told him what do do. Much of what they suggested was harmless, but it seldom included waiting at table or clearing up.
and, when he's stationed in Italy but recovering from injuries:
Other afternoons I would go to the cinema. It was a good way of resting my mind from The Chosen Few. The national taste seemed to be for gloomy domestic drama or knockabout comedy in which small men ended up covered in whitewash.
Every so often, in between sections when Hendricks is reminiscing, there is a bit of "now", and in a few of these there is mention of him receiving a message on the phone asking him urgently to call someone. And you think "call him, then!" - but he doesn't, and then the next bit of reminiscence made me forget all about the message, so that when I hit this:
There was only one message. "Hello, Dr Hendricks, it's Tim Shorter again. I rang some time ago but you didn’t get back to me. Perhaps the machine wasn’t working. Anyway, just to say I’ll be in London in the second week of January and would very much like to give you lunch. Please do get in touch if you get this message. There’s not that much time."
I was shocked - "oh yes! I'd forgotten that - call him!"
One of the things he mentioned about the war recalled something Beevor said:
"By the way," I said, "I always thought Mussolini had drained those wretched marshes."
"He did," said Richard. "But when the Italians surrendered to the Allies, the Germans turned off the pumps, so the marsh flooded again. Then they reintroduced the malarial mosquito and confiscated all the stocks of quinine. To punish the Italians."
At the very end, he finds a letter that his father, who he doesn't remember, and who died in WW1, wrote to him. That was a lovely letter and reminded me a bit of the one that Clary received from her father. It was quite a bit longer than that one, and so perhaps not quite so effective, but it was a lovely end to the book:
Just like I carried the picture of you into battle, please carry me in your heart till in a better world than this one we may somehow meet again.
Completed : 22-Apr-2019