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In this sequel to his earlier seem-autobiographical novel, House of God, Shem (this time using both his pseudonym and his real name) describes the experience of a physician in the first year of a psychiatry residency in a prestigious private psychiatric hospital. In this first hand account it is assumed that the author is the resident, Dr. Roy Basch; he describes not only his experiences with a variety of patients but also with the other doctors and the staff members of the institution. It is not a happy place and in the telling of the story there is a biting irony and a sense of the absurd.
It is obvious from the first that Dr. Basch is very serious about becoming a psychiatrist but that he is also searching for meaning and connections. He finds that colleagues may often hurt you more than your patients. Another issue addressed is that of competing psychiatric theories, particularly the competition between pharmacologic treatment and psychoanalysis. Issues about drug treatment trials and the questionable way in which they are conducted also receive attention, as does the problem of insurance coverage for hospitalization.
The fact that psychiatrists often specialize in their own defects becomes a reality to Dr. Basch. There are not many exemplary people in this book--hopefully it exaggerates the real situation. There is, surprisingly, a sort of poignant positive ending.
After working with the Parisian physiologist, François Magendie, Dr. John Leggate returns to England to practice in the town of Middlethorpe in the late 1840s. He is obsessed with making a research discovery that will help humanity and establish his name. He falls in love with the intelligent and gifted Marian Brooks who aspires to a career as a concert pianist after study in Leipzig with Felix Mendelsohn. They marry and find happiness at first, but she is troubled by discovery of his past affair in France, and he is troubled by her abandoning music simply to be the type of wife he never wanted.
Leggate has a theory about the origins of cholera, but his painstaking work shows him two things: 1. his original idea is mistaken, and 2. the disease is spread by water. He does not publish, though he announces his intentions to do so. Intimidated by skeptical colleagues, he is unable to write, and the problem is exacerbated by a newspapermen who makes unwarranted accusations because he holds a grudge against Leggate’s wife.
Marian wants to help him, but he rejects her offers and retreats into himself. Their marriage is threatened. Just as cholera returns and the town learns from Leggate’s insights, John Snow publishes his famous observations on cholera. Leggate is scooped. He and Marian migrate to Canada where he is accepted for his skills and desire to be of service and she establishes a conservatory of music. Their marriage is restored.
A lieutenant named Alexander Grigoryvitch Sokolsky arrives at the home of Susanna Moiseyevna Rothstein, a Jewess and owner of a vodka distillery. Sokolsky has come to collect the 2300 rubles that Rothstein owes his married cousin. In fact, his cousin doesn’t actually need the money, but Sokolsky is helping his cousin get his debts paid so that he can then borrow the 5000 rubles that he needs to marry his fiancée.
Susanna, a luscious, free-spirited young woman, receives the lieutenant and offers him supper. She entices the IOUs from him, but then refuses to pay up. The next morning Sokolsky returns to his cousin’s house without the money, but presumably sexually satisfied. Kryukov, the cousin, rants and raves. What an outrage! He determines to visit the Jewess himself and demand payment. He does so and, likewise, only returns the next morning, penniless.
After a week, Sokolsky borrows the money from his cousin and leaves. After another week, Kryukov gets an uncontrollable itch to visit the Jewess again. When he arrives at her mansion, there are many men around, including Sokolsky, who evidently has hung around Susanna’s house for a week, having completely forgotten about his fiancée. Krykov’s final words are: "How can I judge him since I’m here myself?"
A doctor is riding through the desolate steppe at twilight and loses his way. He comes to a hut along the new railroad where two men, an engineer and his young assistant, are spending the night. After they all have a few drinks, the engineer marvels over the beauty of lights in the distance, while the young man says the lights remind him "of something long dead, that lived thousands of years ago." (p. 607) He sees no point in human love or accomplishment because, after all, we all have the same fate--death. This encourages the old engineer to tell a tale of his youth.
Once, when visiting his hometown on business, he had come across a childhood friend, a woman who was unhappily married. He looked forward to having a brief affair with her, but she considered him her savior. She desperately wanted him to take her away. The engineer agreed, but then callously abandoned her.
Later, he realized that "I had committed a crime as bad as murder." (p. 635) He went back and "besought Kisotchka’s forgiveness like a naughty boy and wept with her . . . " (p. 639) At the end of "Lights," the doctor rides off at sunrise toward home. All around him nature seems to be saying, "Yes, there’s no understanding anything in the world!"
Brilliant, liberated Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslet/Judi Dench) captures the utter devotion of awkward John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville/Jim Broadbent), whom she inexplicably chooses to be her life partner. The film transfers often between their earliest adventures as students, when Murdoch reveled in shocking the more conventional young man--to stages in the inexorable deterioration of her mind and Bayley’s attempts to keep her going as a writer and a human being.
Memorable scenes include Bayley’s continued admiration of the mature woman’s brilliance, his midnight rage against their lot, and underwater swimming that contrasts nubile daring youth with clumsy, terrified age. In the final minutes, Iris is left in a light-filled institution with kind attendants; her death is hidden. The viewer realizes that this is his tale, not hers.
Losing Julia is narrated by Patrick Delaney, age 81, a World War I veteran, who lives, somewhat independently, in Great Oaks, an assisted living facility. Still able to go into town to get new clothes, books, etc. and enchanted with the kindness and loveliness of Sarah and other female staff members, the well-educated and quick-witted protagonist offers a fresh perspective on "institutional" care.
Much of Patrick’s story, however, concerns Daniel, a war-time buddy, and other soldiers in his embattled unit prior to and during the hellacious Battle of Verdun. Several soldiers are carefully and memorably drawn by the stories they tell about life at home and their aspirations. Daniel stands out as Patrick’s closest friend in the trenches, a young man who is courageous, rational, fearful, and in love with Julia.
Like his peers, Patrick listens to Daniel’s lyrical recollection of the woman others can only imagine. Patrick realizes that he has fallen in love with Julia’s image. Most of the men, including Daniel, are killed brutally in one of the war’s most savage battles. When Patrick’s post-war efforts to find the elusive Julia fail, he marries, works as an accountant, and has two children. Like the war, Julia remains, however, a constant shadow throughout his life.
When a war monument is constructed ten years later on the site of the last atrocious battle, Patrick, his wife, his toddler son, and his sister-in-law journey to Paris. With his family happily detained in Paris, Patrick goes to Verdun alone for the monument’s unveiling ceremonies with many other veterans and grieving family members. It is here that Julia appears and the two become lovers during the time at Verdun and then for a short time in Paris.
The story, non-sequential in its presentation, weaves the various elements of aging, memory, war, love, and loss together for readers to untangle and follow.
Susie Salmon, fourteen years old, is raped, murdered, and dismembered by a serial killer who has moved into the neighbourhood. He disposes of her body in an old sinkhole. Susie is presumed dead when someone’s dog finds her elbow in a cornfield. The rest of her body is never discovered. This novel begins with the murder and follows Susie’s family and friends through the ten years after her death.
Her mother and father separate after he becomes obsessed with proving that Mr. Harvey is the culprit (he is, but evidence is hard to find) and she has an affair with the detective investigating the case. Susie’s sister, Lindsay, grows up as the one who has to stand in for two sisters, one present, one lost; her much-younger brother, Buckley, grows up as the one resenting his family’s dismemberment.
Susie’s schoolfriends grow, too: Ray Singh, who first kissed her, is an early suspect. He becomes a doctor. The sensitive, lesbian, Ruth Connors, is near the cornfield at the moment of Susie’s death and feels something she later realizes was Susie’s soul leaving. She becomes a feminist visionary and poet.
By the end, Susie’s parents have reconciled, Lindsay has married and had a child, and Mr. Harvey, the serial killer, has suffered a death perhaps accidental, certainly just. The strong interpersonal structures that develop after Susie’s death are the "lovely bones" of the title, the narrative rather than material remnants of Susie’s life.
What makes this novel more than an account of loss and grief and recovery (though it is a well-imagined account of this kind) is the fact that it is narrated entirely by Susie, from the perspective of heaven. Heaven is a place of possibility, limited only by the imagination and desires of the dead, and it is a place from which the living can be watched, their lives shared and, perhaps, very occasionally, influenced.
Susie suffers being excluded from her family, but her suffering, her voice implies, is tempered by an extraordinary serenity, a kind of calm that most clearly marks the difference between her condition and that of the living. At the end of the novel she briefly returns to the living, inhabiting Ruth’s body and, with Ray, redeeming and obliterating her own appalling first, lethal, sexual experience. After this she can leave off watching "Earth" all the time, as the horizons of heaven expand beyond those she has left behind.
This book is an autobiographical account of an abrupt and painful injury that completely transforms the author’s life. Berger in 1985 was a healthy woman who enjoyed ice skating and canoeing, a published poet, wife, and mother of a toddler. She bent over one day to pick up her daughter and felt a tearing "within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine." No longer able to run, walk, or even sit, she is forced into a life spent lying down.
Hers is now a world of boundaries and barriers--physical, psychological, and societal. The book chronicles her struggle to parent her child (they make gingerbread creatures lying down on the kitchen floor), to relate to her husband (she has to deal with the constant feeling of being the recipient of his care), to live with pain, and to regain her mobility.
Because hers is not a visible injury and because she must frequently lie down in public places or use her carry-along lawn chair, she suffers the stares and scrutiny of people who cannot pigeon-hole her into a tidy handicapped-wheelchair category. After seven years of physical therapy (she calls her therapists "angels of attempted repair ") she is able to walk and drive, though she is still limited in activity and lives in fear of re-injury.
Hugely pregnant with her fourth child, Minn Burge, intelligent and frustrated mother of a four year-old girl and two year-old twins, prepares her vast but somewhat decrepit Toronto house for a party of film buffs and intellectuals. Her husband, Norman, is a foreign correspondent off on assignment in Katmandu--where, she believes, he is faithful, though surrounded by "amber and hairless women."
On the third floor of her Victorian home lives a small group of hippies. Against their lives and attitudes, she maps her own vagabond past, intimately connected to Europe and the much older but now deceased Honeyman, beatnik director of obscure films whose work is to celebrated that evening.
Through the lead up to and during the party, memories carry Minn back to vignettes of her home town origins, the strained relationship with her mother, the child-like goodness of cousin Annie (an adult trisomic), and the sexual awakening and loss she lived with Honeyman. Minn is tormented with the resentment and anger that she feels toward her husband and her much-loved babies--including the one in her belly--for the havoc they have brought upon her body and her mind.
David Moray is a wealthy physician in his fifties who lives in a Swiss villa, where he indulges his passion for collecting art. He is contemplating a relationship with the stylish yet impoverished Frida von Altishofer, but an idle comment overheard at a party brings an intoxicating memory from his youth. As an idealistic medical student, he once loved and planned to marry Mary Cameron, a simple, highland lass. But first, David had to take a long sea voyage as a ship doctor to recover from tuberculosis; there he met pouting but provocative Doris, and her hopeful parents.
The prospect of a fabulous income in the family’s drug business makes him abandon Mary and a medical practice. He marries Doris but within a short time she is permanently committed to an asylum. The family semi-apologizes for not having told him of her illness. David compensates for his miserable marriage with material possessions that are a proxy for self esteem, until Doris dies and sets him free.
The overhead remark sends him back to Scotland only to discover that his jilted Mary, who had married a minister, is now dead. Her daughter, Kathy, is a nurse and the very spit of her mother. He falls in love all over again. Kathy will not marry him unless he returns to practice and joins her and her uncle as missionaries in Africa. Full of good intentions, he agrees. But he does not tell Kathy about Mary, and he forces himself on her against her will.
When he assimilates the very real dangers of mission work, he simply fails to show up for the appointed rendezvous; he will marry Frida and keep his cherished possessions instead. Told bluntly by Frida of the marriage and of her mother’s past, Kathy drowns herself. David must identify her body. He then hangs himself from a Judas Tree.