Two years after the end of World War II, a mysterious figure, Bertram Reiner, appears at Shadowbrook, a private asylum whose elegant hallways, vaulted ceilings, and magnificent grounds suggest a country estate more than a psychiatric hospital. At first, the chief psychiatrist—as genteel as his aristocratic surrounds—considers his charismatic patient to be a classic, though particularly intriguing, case of war neurosis. But as treatment progresses, Dr. Harrison's sense of clarity clouds over, and he is drawn into Bertram's disquieting preoccupations.
Then, late one night, an intruder is sighted on the hospital grounds, the first in a series of uncanny events that appear to the doctor to be strangely linked; clues abound, yet the truth about Bertram seems always to slip away. Meanwhile, Dr. Harrison's own long-buried troubles reemerge with brutal force. As the careful contours of his existence begin to waver, the doctor is plunged into dangerous, compulsive territory.
When Dr. Harrison finds himself spying on his head nurse, Matilda, even following her one midnight through the underground tunnels that join the hospital buildings, he knows there is no turning back. He is desperate to get to the bottom of the intertwining mysteries connecting Bertram, Matilda, and himself, and senses that everything in his life—and theirs—is at stake.
Set against the backdrop of the insanity of war, The Listener explores the havoc historical trauma plays with the psyche, and illuminates the uncertain boundary between sanity and insanity. Shira Nayman's storytelling is mesmerizing. The Listener is a riveting tale of madness, mystery, and passion that excavates the dark corners of the human heart and mind. It is a work of rare depth and power.
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Early Fall 1947
Crossing the great lawn, I see that the Virginia creeper has turned red and gold, as it does for one week each year, making the old brick of the asylum appear to be alive with flames. I reach the pathway; in the Men’s Garden, beyond the line of dwarf trees, several inmates are hard at work with hoes and rakes. Watching for a moment, I wonder if their troubles are at bay; perhaps the smell of fresh dirt really is a primal palliative that makes a mockery of our talking cure.
I pass through the grand foyer and head along the east corridor. The light streaming through the high windows hits everything in an oddly intense and precise way: the leather easy chair, the inlaid side table, the swan-necked reading lamp. I make my way down to Hall Two, where Bertram is waiting for me by the nurses’ station.
During the War, I treated dozens of patients with battle fatigue. I remember one case in particular—a man named Hammersmith who made excellent progress, though there was always an undercurrent of tension between us. The day of his discharge—he was being sent back into battle—I visited his room to say good-bye. I have you to thank, he said, his stiff smile at odds with the glint of rage in his eye. He was the most memorable of my cases, until I met Bertram Reiner, a young man whose graduate studies in biochemistry were interrupted by the War and who returned, when it was over, wounded and psychologically unbalanced. Despite enormous difficulties, he managed to complete his Ph.D. On graduation day, Bertram Reiner apparently cracked. Up at the podium, as the president of Columbia University handed him his diploma, Bertram accused him of a war crime.
Not long after this, Bertram committed himself voluntarily to Shadowbrook for long-term treatment. His insanity appears circumscribed—unusual in any psychosis, including “psychosis due to trauma,” my preliminary diagnosis; for the most part, he remains lucid, showing some insight into his condition.
For the first time in more than twenty years, I find myself at a loss. In session with Bertram, I am aware that I experience him more like a colleague than like a patient; I feel as if I were suddenly in the body of a smaller, weaker man. This is troubling, and yet also oddly exciting. I can feel the hidden goings-on, like tiny poisonous fish scudding beneath the surface, shiny but deadly.
Throughout my evaluation, Bertram has given the impression of answering my questions, but once the session is over, I realize I understand little more about his condition; he is always slipping from my grasp. Early on, I noticed another peculiarity: Bertram’s eyes seem to shift slightly in color with his changing mood.
We walk back to my office in silence. He sits in his usual chair across from my desk and begins speaking, as if we had been in the middle of a conversation.
“It’s why I’m here,” he says. “Why I came into the hospital.”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” I say carefully.
His eyes are impatient. “It’s pretty obvious.”
“Could you give me a little more to go on?”
“I’d have thought it was clear that I’m not really a psychiatric patient. That I’ve come here for reasons other than mental illness.”
I’ve had many patients maintain they were as sane as I; only recently, an elderly woman insisted I was the one who should be locked up, not she. She claims to be “your very own Queen Victoria,” and has taken to imitating my English accent with uncanny accuracy; she intends to try me for treason, for abandoning Mother England.
“I needed to find a place where there was little chance of being found,” Bertram continues.
“Who is it you need to avoid?”
“My brother,” Bertram says, looking a little surprised.
During the intake interview Bertram had struggled to explain why he’d voluntarily committed himself. What he finally said was, The world seems strange. Nature, the light. People, sounds, food. I feel stranded. As if everything’s becoming unmoored from itself. He talked of a kind of elastic dread that made him jumpy and exhausted. But, there was no mention of a brother.
“I don’t recall you mentioning a brother before today.”
Bertram turns sideways in his chair. “I had my reasons for keeping quiet on the subject.”
“What has changed?” I ask.
“You may think it a misuse of the hospital system. But the truth is, I fear for my life. I didn’t know what else to do.”
His gray eyes seem suddenly touched with green; I sense his fear.
“Go on,” I say.
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“Just begin anywhere.”
Bertram looks out of the window.
“We had a neighbor,” he says. “Rosamund. We both loved her, though I loved her more. When I was twelve, and Rosamund was eleven, she and I decided that one day, we would be married. It wasn’t a child’s game; we were serious.”
“What is your brother’s name?” I ask.
“Emanuel. There was always something disturbing about him.” Bertram pauses, seems to be searching for words. “As if he didn’t live in the same world as everybody else but had learned to act as if he did.”
He falls silent.
“You were talking about Rosamund,” I prompt.
“Rosamund was killed in an accident.” Bertram’s voice catches on the words. “After Rosamund died, Emanuel started to seem crazy. I’d been afraid of him before, but now I felt like my brother might actually become dangerous. He blamed me for her death, I know he did. It wasn’t rational. He also blamed me for the fact that she’d liked me more than she’d liked him.”
“When did you last see Emanuel?”
“I haven’t seen him since the divorce.”
“The divorce?” I don’t know what he’s referring to.
“Soon after Rosamund died, my mother left my father. She took me with her; Emanuel stayed with my father.”
“And you’ve had no contact with them, all these years? With your father and your brother?”
Bertram shakes his head. “We moved. We began a new life.”
“How is this connected with your being in the hospital?”
“I needed to feel safe. I couldn’t think of anyplace else to go.” He is looking both at me and somewhere else.
“I think Emanuel wants to kill me.”
I feel a prickling sensation in the back of my neck.
“Why would he want to kill you?”
“It’s complicated. I’m not sure I can explain it, not all at once.”
Bertram’s eyes dart around the room and then land back on me.
“I received a letter. It wasn’t signed, but I know it’s from him; he’s tracked me down, after all. In the letter, he accuses me of terrible crimes, including the murder of a young girl. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Even the handwriting was weird. Long, skinny letters on one line, fat ones on the next. Like it had been written by different people. At the end, was a threat.”
“Can you tell me what the threat was?”
“That I’d end up in the same kind of accident. That I’d die the way she did, if I didn’t find a way to change things.”
Bertram gives a helpless shrug. “I have no idea what he meant. Something about turning back the hands of time.”
“Did you keep the letter?”
“No. I tore it up. I didn’t want to have it around.”
The next morning, on my way to the office, I pause to let the barbershop contingent pass: the Hall Two patients on their way to be shaved, many still in their pajamas, walking somberly in single file. They are led by Nurse O’Halahan, a no-nonsense woman with a reputation for candor, whose spry step and air of professional cheer only emphasize the almost funereal mood of the men. My greeting is met with bleary replies; I watch as the group wait at the end of the corridor for their guardian to do a quick head count and then unlock the door and usher them through.
Two hours later, when I encounter those same men in the library on the ward, the mood is altogether different. Dressed and freshly shaved, they look relaxed, scattered about in armchairs, on leather couches, reading newspapers or magazines from the array on the long wooden table. Two orderlies in white coats attend to the men, lighting a cigarette, clearing away an ashtray, responding to a comment or query.
The sight of me functions as a signal; papers are folded and replaced, cigarettes snuffed out, conversations tapered, and the patients make their way to the dayroom for community meeting. Staff members file in and take their places in the circle of chairs. After I make a few announcements and Head Nurse Willoughby presents the weekly agenda, we open the floor to the patients. A prolonged silence follows, and then Frederick Collins speaks.
“I’m sorry to be difficult,” he says quietly. “But I really must grow a beard.”
In his nine months here, Collins has never spoken up in community meeting. He has been a benign fixture on the hall, cocooned in his own private distress.
“Allow me to clarify,” Cuthbert volunteers. A long-term resident of Shadowbrook, Cuthbert is in many ways the polar opposite of Collins: gregarious, flamboyant, given to voluble pronouncements and manic flights.
Collins nods embarrassedly, and Cuthbert continues. “I believe this pertains to the matter of the barbershop. It’s the long walk that bothers him—not the shaving per se. Today was particularly difficult; we took turns steering him away from walls and egging him on.”
Collins stares at his feet. “I dread those hallways. Four days a week; it’s too much.”
“Sometimes, the poor man looks as if he were walking the Bridge of Sighs,” Cuthbert continues. “Headed to his own execution.”
“I should think a beard might suit you, Mr. Collins,” I say carefully. “But perhaps we can also help you manage the unpleasantness.”
Collins’s face is hung with misery. “It’s like purgatory. Like I’m going to be doing that forever—walking in a line of silent men. Down a long hallway. Going nowhere.”
“Once we get there,” Cuthbert adds, “we come to life—smoke cigarettes, read the papers and such. Eddie always has a fresh joke: a bit bawdy sometimes, and I daresay, that’s all to the good! But Mr. Collins looks like he wished a hole would open in the floor and swallow him up. I know I’m speaking for us all when I say we feel bad for him—and support his request.”
Some of the men call out “Hear, hear!”
“Perhaps what he’s really concerned about are the haircuts,” says Mr. Anderson, a professor of histology affectionately called the Professor, who occasionally claims he’s a rooster and is known for his excellent tennis game. “I sometimes worry about that myself. What you might call the Samson effect.”
Bertram remains aloof, regarding Collins in a curious way.
“Mr. Reiner, do you have something to add?” I ask.
“I was just thinking that I don’t like the barbershop much myself.”
“Do go on,” Cuthbert chimes in. He is fond of employing the psychiatrist’s stock phrases, which he does with pride rather than mockery.
“I’m more comfortable shaving myself,” Bertram continues. “I know it’s only Eddie, and he’s the most good-natured bloke in the world, but submitting to the blade … It just doesn’t seem right, not here—”
“Why—not here?” I ask.
There is something uncanny about the way Bertram is looking at me—as if he can tell what I am thinking.
“I see that as rather self-evident,” he replies.
Toward evening, I head back to my office, stopping in first to see Cynthia.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she says pleasantly. “I need at least a dozen of your John Hancocks.”
“I’m sorry. I seem to have been running late all day. I trust you had a good weekend,” I say, as I flip through the papers she hands me and scribble my signature on each.
“Yes, very nice.” Her lips smile, but there is loneliness in her eyes. “Quiet.”
I always feel a little uncomfortable in Cynthia’s office, with its carefully tended pot plants and shelves of alphabetized poetry: as if I’d stepped into a homily I was supposed to live up to. When I ask for Bertram’s intake documents, Cynthia retrieves them from the locked filing cabinet.
“I’ll be presenting this patient at the next case conference,” I say. “So I’ll need to keep these for a while.”
In my office, I review Bertram’s papers. The sections headed “Closest Relations” and “Emergency Contacts” are blank. No relatives, no friends. No brother. It’s as if Bertram has excised his history—his arrival at Shadowbrook a strange act of both self-annihilation and rebirth. Although the blank spaces could simply reflect the truth: that Bertram is alone in the world—both parents gone, no siblings or enduring friendships. Perhaps he has split off the crazy, self-loathing part of himself and turned it into a phantom brother intent on killing him: a veiled confession of suicidality. I glance at the clock, startled to see the hour, then lock up the papers and rush home to change.
Reaching the white picket fence bordering the property of my house, I see Ursula’s flower beds and shrubs arranged with forced perfection, like shiny-faced schoolchildren lined up and seeking approval. The soil bordering the pathway has been turned. And I think, for the thousandth time, how absurd it is that they put up just this kind of fence to separate the director’s residence from the rest of the asylum.
Inside, the house holds the kind of silence that says something. Upstairs, Ursula is propped up in bed, the shades drawn. She looks at me apologetically.
“Migraine, my dear?” I ask.
She nods. “Wouldn’t you know it? The night of the welcoming dinner. I spent an hour this morning ironing my dress.”
“Not to worry,” I say. “I will get along fine on my own.”
I perch on the edge of the bed and pat her hand. In her eyes, longing flares for an instant.
“Busy day?” she asks.
“No more than usual. I see you made progress getting ready for the bulbs.”
“I thought I’d plant jonquils this year. Do you think yellow might do, up against the red brick of the path?”
“I rather like jonquils,” I say.
In the bathroom, I turn the shower to very hot, and soon there is nothing but thick white vapor. There is a fresh bar of soap: something different, luxurious, perhaps one of Ursula’s occasional little extravagances. A familiar scent from the past—lavender or lilac, something Ursula once favored and has decided to reclaim. I see her as she was, long ago, lying on the bed, not in a flannel nightgown as now but naked beneath the sheet. I pass my eyes across the length of her and feel the rise of desire. Her cheeks are flushed; she smiles. I peel the sheet away to reveal her lovely body, awaiting my gaze: breasts spilling ripely, rounded belly sloping towards the soft triangle. Her eyes hover, and I can feel thrill rising from her.
The old feelings are there for an instant, then gone. Here, now, I hear her stirring in the other room. I turn off the faucet and wait until the steam thins. When I return to the bedroom to dress, Ursula has dozed off. I reach for my jacket and pants—what I still think of as my new tuxedo, though I’ve had it for ten years; it fits me as well now as it did when I bought it. Catching my reflection in the glass, I am surprised to see several marked lines in the forehead of the man looking back at me, whose dark hair is also, unexpectedly, frosted with gray.
Outside, the moon sits low, somehow casual, as if it wants to be part of things. The Men’s Garden, empty now of patients, is washed with a half-light that makes it seem both more and less real. Passing by the main building, I am joined by several young doctors wearing crisp tuxedos.
“Good evening, Doctors,” I say with playful formality. “I hardly recognize any of you!”
We make our way to Sturgiss Hall, which glitters up ahead, its leaded-glass windows shining brightly with the light of chandeliers. It is the first time since the War that we’ve had a goodly number of lightbulbs. The janitor has also managed to dig up some fairy lights; they drip from the eaves like jewels.
At the bar I sip a martini and survey the room. Under the vaulted ceiling, everyone looks a little stunted, and the heavy shine of the parquet floor seems unnatural, as if this room were an enormous stage. Glancing around, I have the not entirely unpleasant feeling that all these people are not my colleagues and trainees but strangers—transformed magically, as if I’d fallen into another reality.
Approaching me is Percy Fenton, Chief of Medicine; usually sober-spirited, he now seems almost rakish, leaning against the bar, swirling ice in a highball glass.
“How’s the handicap?” I ask.
“Lousy,” he replies. “Can’t seem to nudge it down. I’m dogged, though—out every Sunday, eight o’clock. When am I going to twist your arm to join me?”
“I never was any good with sticks,” I say, offering my empty glass to the bartender, who fixes me another martini. “I’d only end up inadvertently clobbering you with the club.” We’ve been through this routine dozens of times before.
Across the room is an elegant woman in green silk, talking with the chief resident and sipping from a champagne flute. When she catches my eye and smiles, I realize that, of course, I know her: Matilda Willoughby, head nurse of Hall Two, looking nothing like the pragmatic woman in the starched uniform at community meeting this morning. I smile back, startled by an unexpected feeling, as if for a moment we are joined by an invisible ripple of heat. Her smile fades, and something quizzical wavers in her face, as if she, too, has felt it. A woman in a violet gown appears beside her and takes her arm, diverting Matilda’s attention; I have to squint to see that it is Nurse Vanessa O’Halahan. She says something, and Matilda laughs, gracefully arcing her neck; her hair, usually hidden by a nurse’s cap and now stylishly swept up, is a warm shade of chestnut.
After dinner, the residents and younger staff members drift onto the dance floor. A chamber music quartet by the window plays a waltz; watching the couples move about, I become aware of the tightness of my collar and bow tie; the room feels uncomfortably hot. Then I am distracted by a mini-swarm of waiters, who appear from nowhere, clearing dishes and balancing trays of coffee and dessert. Not waiters, really, but the servants of the wealthier patients, whom we engage from time to time for events such as these.
Here at Shadowbrook, the servants seem to maintain the stock-in-trade of servants everywhere—to incubate for their masters an atmosphere of superiority and deserving privilege. To see this illusion scrupulously enacted here, where the objects of their attentions might be given to sudden shrieks or fits of hysterical paralysis, or the glazed demeanor of the melancholic, shows up the absurd side of the whole arrangement.
Sometimes I take a detour from my office to the ward by way of the servants’ quarters, a warren of beautifully appointed rooms set under the eaves of the main building. The most interesting time to find oneself there is after lunch. Having served their masters in the main dining hall, the servants take an hour to themselves, bringing up their trays from downstairs. They pass down the long hallway: two dozen or more gentlemen in black suits, white shirts, and bow ties, balancing trays as they walk in and out of the afternoon sunlight that falls in bands, giving to their movements an eerily syncopated rhythm, as if their vividness itself were coming and going.
I catch sight of the dignified man I know to be the servant of Bertram Reiner; he is approaching my table with a tray full of dessert. I wonder where Bertram gets his money. His servant places a flaky pastry before me.
“Thank you,” I say.
The man nods politely.
“I’m afraid I don’t know your name,” I continue.
The waiter-servant stands to a kind of attention.
“Mr. Thomas, sir,” he says.
“Pleased to know you, Mr. Thomas. I trust you have settled nicely into your new lodgings.”
“Our quarters are very comfortable, Dr. Harrison, thank you.”
“And your master? I trust he is also comfortably settled.”
Thomas stiffens. Staff are not supposed to discuss patients with the servants; it is a firm regulation, and to break it is something of a taboo.
“If you’ll excuse me, sir,” he says, giving a neat quarter bow.
By the time dessert is over, I realize I’ve had a drink or two too many. It is ten-fifteen; a half hour more, I think, and I’ll be able to make my escape. From the corner of my eye, I see someone hastening toward me across the dance floor; it is Cynthia, looking distressed.
“Dr. Harrison,” she says breathlessly. “I was in my office, catching up on some filing—your wife called. Her migraine has turned nasty.”
We leave together; I give a quick farewell nod here and there to staff members who call out, “Good night.” Cynthia fills me in on Ursula’s condition: uncontrollable vomiting, the feeling that she has ice picks behind both eyes. Ursula and Cynthia have been fast friends since I became director and plucked Cynthia from the typing pool; they’ve come to depend on each other with the deep, familial connection of sisters. Now, I sense Cynthia’s distress. We part at the fork, and when I glance back, she is still standing there, looking forlorn.
Ursula’s headaches are becoming more frequent and more dire. Hurrying through the cool night, I feel a lurching sadness; the change of life seems especially cruel for Ursula, given she was never able to conceive. The migraines suddenly feel like something painful between us, horribly symbolic of an unborn child.
I find Ursula doubled up on the bathroom floor, her mouth slack, eyes inward with pain. Unable to speak, she whimpers responses to my questions as I prepare a syringe. After administering the injection, I wipe Ursula’s face with a hot washcloth and then help her to her feet. She leans against me, and I guide her back to bed, where she sinks, with relief, into a drugged sleep.
In my study, I find myself thinking about Matilda Willoughby, disarming and unfamiliar in her green silk dress. Am I imagining it, or did something pass between us, back at Sturgiss Hall, under the blazing chandelier?
Standing by the window of my office, I watch lightning splice the late afternoon sky. Beyond the lawn, where the incline becomes steep, the royal oaks and sycamores shimmer through the driving rain. Beside the stone walkway edging the lawn, the hydrangeas nod heavily. Water pelts what’s left of the summer roses, sending the worn petals fluttering to the ground.
I am counting in wait for the crash. Seven seconds later, the thunder hits, rattling the windows.
All day long, the dream images from last night have hung over me, tugging at my attention. For so many years, I have been free from the dreams that once plagued me; I feel blindsided by their sudden reappearance, pained, caught unawares, and yet also secretly enthralled.
At my desk, I lose myself in work. It is close to ten o’clock when I realize the rain has stopped and night has fallen. A knock at the door startles me.
Matilda—not resplendent, as she was the other night, but tense and drawn. The hair showing beneath her nurse’s cap looks wet.
“May I have a word with you, Dr. Harrison?” she asks.
“Of course. Come in.”
Matilda sits on the sofa by the window, opposite my leather armchair.
“I’m sorry to trouble you at this late hour …”
In the two years she has been head nurse, I have never seen Matilda agitated. Though we’ve not discussed it, I know a little about what she went through as an Army nurse in the Philippines from her discharge file, which included newspaper articles from the tour she’d taken, after her escape from Corregidor, to promote the sale of war bonds. Glancing through the clippings, I was struck by the young nurse’s poise. When I met her, I saw that her beauty, evident in the newspaper photographs, was muted; it was her intelligence that made the greatest impression. I liked her immediately. How could anything here in this hospital, with its gracious grounds and pavilions, its ample staff and plentiful supplies and hallways laid with Persian rugs, seem difficult after what she had experienced in the War? It is therefore arresting to see her in this troubled state.
“We’ve had an incident on the hall,” she says. “I was going to call you, but one of the orderlies on the search team saw the light in your window, so I thought I’d stop by instead. I hope it’s not an inconvenience.”
“Not at all,” I say.
“A patient went missing. About an hour ago.”
“I instructed Janice to telephone you if we were gone more than fifteen minutes, but it didn’t take long to find him. We don’t know how he got past the nurses’ station without being seen. I will look into that, of course.”
“Which patient are we talking about?” I ask.
“Oh! Yes, I’m sorry. It was Mr. Reiner. He was not in his room at the nine o’clock room check. After I sent out the search party, I realized I hadn’t told them to cover the area beyond the formal gardens. I had a hunch he might be there, so I decided to go out myself.”
Very abnormal indeed—to rush off into an onslaught of rain to help look for a patient. Matilda has a gauzy look in her eyes, as if she’s so caught up in the drama of what has just happened that her professional distance has slipped.
“I thought he might have gone to the gardener’s shed to take shelter under the eaves. That’s where I found him, soaked to the bone. When he saw me, he said something perplexing: I really shouldn’t. He said it four or five times. And there was something strange in his face.”
Matilda looks past me to the door, as if she’s expecting someone to appear.
“Is that so very surprising?” I ask gently.
“That there should be something strange in the patient’s face?”
“No. I suppose it shouldn’t be.” She clasps her hands. “But it took me aback. Up until now he’s seemed so … well, normal. I told him we should get in out of the rain. That’s when he said he couldn’t go back to the ward as long as there were scientists there.”
Matilda bites her lower lip. “I think I was convinced that the poor man was just a bit shell-shocked and in need of a rest. It’s just that …” A slow rise of crimson creeps up from the neckline of her uniform.
“Mr. Reiner seems different?” I interpose.
“Did you see a lot of soldiers with battle fatigue in the Philippines?”
The color spreads gently across Matilda’s face, then dissipates. I glimpse again her subtle beauty: disquieting, the way it wavers in and out of one’s awareness.
“Why, yes. I mean, no. We saw our fair share, I suppose. We couldn’t really focus on that.”
She looks away.
“I imagine it’s not easy to talk about.”
“I prefer to leave the past where it is.”
“And where might that be?” I ask.
Matilda swings her gaze back to meet mine; I find myself looking into eyes that are steady and distressed at the same time.
“Not here,” she says. “Certainly not here.”
“What happened next?” I ask.
“I told him there were no scientists at the hospital, unless he considered psychiatrists to be scientists.”
“You’ve dealt with more worrisome situations than this,” I say. “And yet, what happened this evening with Mr. Reiner seems to have unsettled you greatly. Perhaps more than it might have with another patient.”
Matilda reaches up and touches her white cap; her eyes flicker with anxiety.
“Could it be that Mr. Reiner reminds you of someone? That his behavior recalled an experience you had during the War?”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“I know from personal experience—especially regarding war,” I say. “It’s not always so easy to leave the past behind.”
At lunchtime, there’s a baseball game in progress on the largest of the hospital’s playing fields. It is a crisp day, and some of the patients, dressed in their exercise clothing, are hugging themselves for warmth. Bertram appears to be the umpire. The bases are loaded; the pitcher throws, the batter swings, and the shortstop catches the ball. All three men are already running before Bertram calls “Out.” The batter throws down the bat and streaks toward first.
“Hey!” Bertram cries. “Come back here. You’re out!”
There is freedom on the men’s faces; they speed along and gain their bases but, instead of stopping, continue on. The patients waiting to bat catch the fun and leap to join them. They run wildly around the diamond; no one stops at home plate, each man runs on through. The diamond is a chaos of men tearing about, some whooping, some blank-faced, others touched with the joy of the unencumbered child.
Bertram stands and watches the mayhem, a look of consternation on his face. But then he sets his whistle down in the grass and joins them: not with abandon, but with poignant seriousness. As he skims across first, he catches my eye and offers a sheepish smile, as if to say, This is apparently the thing to do. I think about Matilda and how surprised she was to see Bertram in that altered state out in the storm. It is true; Bertram is a changeling. Now, as he picks up speed, he looks like a staff member who has the decency and spontaneity to join the disturbed patients in their prank, not like a man who belongs among them.
“Hey, Dr. Harrison!” Cuthbert’s face is lit with manic glee as he slides into home plate. “Pick up the bat!”
I am taken aback by a sudden urge to peel off my jacket and throw it to the ground. During the First War, we found ourselves fighting alongside American soldiers; on the occasional quiet evening, we’d set up a game. The Americans laughed at us British, though they had their comeuppance when we switched to cricket. At the memory, I am overcome by a pungent feeling: gaiety mingled with dread.
“Some other time,” I say, giving a mock salute and continuing on, the sounds of the patients’ cheers and hoots full in my ears.
I knew Frederick Collins only from the hall, as he was under the direct care of a colleague, but the idea that he might be a schemer never crossed my mind. Not surprising, I suppose; the suicidal patient is a rare breed. He may possess no malevolence toward others but is canny as a fox when it comes to doing harm to himself. Having convinced us all that he posed no danger in this regard, Collins was on the unlocked ward, where the windows have heavy metal screens instead of bars. I can hardly picture him being as focused as he must have been to loosen the large number of heavy screws—and with what?—that held the screen in place. And then managing to elude the evening collection of bathrobe belts and other ordinary items that can be turned into deadly devices. I try to imagine how he might have felt during that final room check, when the beam of the orderly’s flashlight struck his face as he lay in bed. I see him creeping out of the window and then hurrying across the lawn, down to where the woods begin: finding a suitable tree and throwing the cord up over a sturdy branch. He displayed ingenuity, fashioning a noose from such an inadequate length, stringing himself up to dangle alone in the darkness with only the whispering leaves for company as he jerked out the last of his life.
Collins left a journal—a shabby wad of papers hidden in a picked-open seam of his mattress. I did not know the patients had a “Suicide Club.” From his descriptions, I try to identify who the other members might be—surely not Bertram, who has never expressed overt suicidal thinking; besides, such mental-patient antics do not seem like Bertram’s style. The “club’s” chief goal was to achieve at least one “bump” per month—with three “rousing cheers” in celebration anytime one of their members managed to “go west.” Perhaps, in his last moments, Frederick Collins pictured his friends on the hall slapping one another on the back and saluting his success. I close the file, which will be placed in the basement storage vault termed, appropriately enough, the Dead File Room.
We call a special community meeting to talk about Collins. The mood among the patients is sad, accepting and elegiac, in contrast to the palpable distress of the staff early this morning. I know from experience that the bewildered sense of collective failure will hang over us for weeks.
“It came as a surprise to some of the others,” Bertram says later, in our session. “But not to me. I could see it in his face.”
“That he’d had enough. Life wasn’t worth it for him anymore; it was just too hard.”
Bertram looks preoccupied; there is no sign of the ease that possessed him the other day at the baseball game.
“Life can feel that way sometimes,” I say. “But then, the feeling passes.”
“No, not passes,” Bertram says thoughtfully. “Goes underground. Gets put away, locked up. I’m discovering here that distraction is a mighty force. Woodworking, the print shop, games. All the coming and going. It’s pretty effective, some of the time, but at bottom, it isn’t enough.”
“Sometimes the doing is meaningful in and of itself—beyond serving to distract. I’ve seen the desk you’re building; it’s beautiful. And the vegetables from the patients’ garden taste pretty real to me.”
“Planting, reaping, sowing: that kind of thing,” he says wearily, then sinks into a brooding silence.
After a time, I ask him what he is thinking.
He studies me, as if trying to decide whether or not to proceed. “I was thinking about Buchenwald.”
I know Bertram was with the regiment that liberated the camp. “Tell me about it.”
“I was thinking about how eerily empty it was when we got there. The inmates had been sent on death marches and the guards had fled. We’d been told to do a sweep of the place. I was with a young captain by the name of Jared. Building after building—nothing. It was like a ghost town. We went into the officers’ mess. It was spookily quiet at first, but then I heard something—very faint, almost inaudible. I noticed fresh plasterwork in the corner.”
A long pause. Bertram seems to be battling himself, as if he wants to forget but is unable to stop remembering.
“I don’t recall kicking the wall in—but then there they were, crouched in the small space, looking up at me. Jared was pointing his gun at them: four SS, in full uniform. For some reason, I kept my eyes on the one; the others were a blur. A good-looking man: distinguished, maybe ten years older than me.
“I heard Jared cock his pistol; he whispered that they had weapons—that we had to kill them. I told him we were taking them alive. I don’t know what happened after that. A moment later, Jared was dead on the other side of the mess hall. Blown clear across by a hand grenade. I must have jumped away quickly, in the right direction. No one else was killed. Maybe whoever threw it aimed directly at Jared.”
Again, he falls silent.
“They were scientists,” he says finally. “Dr. Harrison, do you know what they did with all those scientists?”
“No, Bertram, I don’t.”
“They’re here. In the United States. Working for the CIA.”
“How do you know that the one you took prisoner came to work for the CIA?”
“I was privy to a good deal of classified information.”
Again, that eerie manner, as if Bertram knows something about me—something private and devastating.
“I don’t mean to be ungrateful,” he adds.
“Ungrateful for what?”
“For the charming bit about seeds, growing into vegetables. It’s just that reality isn’t like that, at least, not for me.”
After he leaves, I unlock the cabinet behind my desk; my heart skips with guilty pleasure at the sound of the click. I pour myself two fingers of vodka, then stand by the window and look onto the grounds and wait for the warm flow.
I don’t know why the dreams have come back; it feels like the encroachment of an old self—someone else, not me.
They say that true love comes as a thunderbolt—and it did, for me, the moment I laid eyes on Delilah. I was chief resident; she was a patient, waiting for me on the admitting hall in the company of a nurse. Twenty-two years old, sitting erect in the chair, very still but taut, as if about to spring into action. She tracked me with her deep green eyes, assessing, alert, missing nothing, her face immobile. The pull of her gaze: it seemed as if she was not so much looking at me as sloughing away the external layers I had labored so hard to cultivate.
After Delilah’s accident, I considered leaving psychiatry. I was only a few months from taking the boards; it would have been unusual to start a whole new residency, especially then. Many of us had lost time to the Great War and were eager to make it up. In the end, I stuck it out: finished the year as chief resident and passed my exams. I stayed on at Shadowbrook, where I have been ever since.
But for years after the accident, my nights were torture. I would lie awake, the ticking hours eating into me, and then finally slip into fraught dreams. Sleeping fitfully beside Ursula, I sometimes found myself crossing the room to where Delilah sat on the chaise longue in my small attic office, pausing briefly to look at her. Delilah would turn her pale face toward me, freed, finally, from her tremulous sorrow; I would raise my hand to her cheek, watch the slow spread of her smile, lean in for the kiss. She would open herself to me then, and I would feel intoxicated.
There was another dream. Delilah’s paleness now a horror as the blood slowly spreads, staining her blue jacket to black. Still, I longed for sleep as one longs for a lover, for there was always the chance I would find myself in the other place: peeling away her soft cardigan, then her blouse, sliding my hand beneath.
To quench the insomnia I took to using laudanum. To my illicit delight, I discovered the drug improved my chances of dreaming myself into Delilah’s arms. Very soon, the laudanum wasn’t enough.
The first time I took the train into Chinatown, I felt like a fugitive from my own life. Walking the narrow streets, I was aware of a mysterious pulsing, both distant and near: the sense that my life was about to change. I passed an elaborately carved doorway, hung with red and gold silk; a man with a long ponytail motioned conspiratorially for me to enter. I followed through a series of dimly lit rooms to a parlor lined with wooden bunks and dense with sickly sweet smoke. The smell hit me the moment I entered; I recognized it at once, though I couldn’t place why. It was only later, in a supervision session with Dr. Greely, that I realized I had smelled this odor on him: faint but perceptible beneath the ever-present reek of his pipe tobacco.
On almost every bunk in the parlor, people—Chinese and Westerners, several of them women—reclined. Everyone moved languidly, as if underwater, leaning toward a pipe being offered, drawing in smoke, lowering back down to the bunk. Several heads turned slowly in my direction and then swiveled, disinterested, away. I followed my guide to an empty bunk and lay back against the silk-covered cushions. Fascinated, I watched as a young man prepared the opium. With the first inhalation, I was lost; the room became a wondrous vessel, and I sank into the exhilarating mix of helplessness and power that felt strangely akin to lust.
I returned to that parlor again, and again, until I’d learned to prepare the pipe myself; then, I brought the waxy, brown blocks of opium home, smoking late at night in my study while Ursula slept. She was a deep sleeper, so I didn’t have to worry about her awakening; I was able to give myself over to the visions of Delilah: more lush than wakefulness and as heady as the sweet-smelling smoke.
The evening Ursula received news of her mother’s stroke, I realized how estranged from each other we had become. She took the phone call in the hallway, and then returned to the dining room looking ashen. Her face crumpled as she relayed the news; I found myself looking at someone I hardly knew, someone standing there as if behind thick glass.
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” I said, knowing I should embrace her, or at least take her hand. I felt suddenly ashamed, then realized to my horror that I was cutting a piece of lamb with the intention of raising it to my lips. Ursula’s eyes drifted to my plate; I froze, holding my knife and fork, unable to fight the undertow that had for so long been dragging me away.
Ursula hugged herself, struggling to stifle tears.
“You must go, of course,” I said, and still I failed to rise, failed to take her into my arms.
Ursula nodded, then nodded again. She was looking at the floor with misery.
I hated myself then, but that didn’t stop the upsurge of pleasure at the thought that, with Ursula gone, I would have the house to myself.
For a little over a year, Ursula made regular trips to Maine to care for her mother. I looked forward to her absences, though I was not unhappy when she returned. We settled into a new pattern, which in some ways was an improvement. Once her mother recovered sufficiently, Ursula’s frequent absences stopped. That was when she told me she knew about my addiction. She told me that I appeared unwell, that my work was surely being affected. That I was putting everything at risk. With enormous conflict, I gave up the pipe; the dreams, the glorious as well as the ghastly, slammed to a halt. It was a terrible loss, though at some level, I suppose I was also relieved.
Now, looking out across the lawn, allowing my eyes to rest on the willow tree, I tell myself that I can bear it: that the memory of Delilah won’t, after all, tear me apart.
“Actually, it’s crazier than it sounds,” Bertram says.
“The fact that Emanuel blamed me for Rosamund’s death. I mean, he was the one driving the car.”
Bertram looks at me accusingly—as if the death of his childhood sweetheart were my fault.
“What car, Bertram?”
“My uncle’s car. The car that hit her. Emanuel was only fourteen, but he had a thing about cars. My uncle had a 1934 Ford Hi-boy that he only drove on weekends. Sometimes my brother cut school and took the car out. That afternoon, he was driving it down our street when he lost control. Rosamund was riding her bike and he hit her.”
Bertram changes the subject before I have a chance to comment.
“I don’t always have the easiest time with words,” he says. “It’s as if they have eyes.”
Bertram is clearly not sleeping well; his face is beginning to look haggard. It has been two months since he came to the hospital; I’d hoped by now the barbiturates would have stabilized his sleep patterns and eased both the melancholia and the slightly paranoid edge.
“What do you mean by eyes?”
“They seem to mean one thing to other people and another thing to me.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“You’re fond of examples, aren’t you.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Victory. That’s a perfect example.”
“What does victory mean to you?”
“What does it mean to you, Doctor? Maybe we could start there.”
“Hitler dead in his bunker. The chance for the world to regain some measure of sanity.”
Bertram gives a wan smile. “What better place than a psychiatric hospital for that?”
I return the smile. “Good a place as any.”
Bertram’s ironic expression fades. “That’s another word that slips away from me,” he says, directing his words to the window.
“That’s a tricky one for the rest of us, too,” I say. “But you were talking about victory.”
He sweeps his eyes back across to me; I am startled by their dark glow.
“To me,” he says, “it means only death.”
Bertram places his hand in his jacket pocket; I see movement through the material, as if he’s rubbing his fingers together in the pocket.
“I can see how you would think that,” I say. “War is a terrible thing.”
Bertram is suddenly on his feet. His hand flies up from his pocket, and I see he is holding a scrap of paper.
“Millions—and this one, horrible death—” He waves the piece of paper he is holding like it’s a tiny little flag, then falls back into his chair and slumps forward, head in his hands.
I give him a moment, then quietly ask, “What is that?”
He speaks from his doubled-over position.
“What is what?” he says stonily.
“That piece of paper you have in your hand.”
“It’s not a piece of paper. It’s a postcard.” His voice sounds artificial.
“No.” His voice is barely audible. “You—do—not—see—”
“The postcard,” I say. “Who is it from?”
“The postcard is from Rosamund.”
“Rosamund,” I repeat. “Your neighbor.”
“When did she write you the postcard?” I ask.
“On the eve of her murder.”
Murder: the sound of the word flutters for a moment in the room.
“She wrote you the postcard before the car accident?”
“It wasn’t an accident,” he says. “Just listen. ‘Dearest Bertram.’”
He pauses for a very long time. I think he will not go on, but then, he does.
“You understand,” he says, “I am translating. I assume you don’t understand German.”
I shake my head.
“Very well, then. ‘We are allowed one postcard and only four hundred words. I am writing to you. I do not know if you will ever receive this. You are my true soul’s love. God intended us to be man and wife, I am certain. I do not know how God’s plan went astray. We are to report tomorrow for “work duty.” Please remember me always. You are in my heart. Rosamund.’”
The postcard is worn with handling; from where I sit, the words Bertram is reading seem no longer legible—just a curl or line, here and there. He glances up, sees me craning to look at the postcard.
“It is true,” Bertram says, his eyes shining with sadness. “The words are no longer visible. But they are here—” He points to his temple, then lets his hand drift down to his breastbone, where he holds his fist tightly against his chest.
How could his neighbor have been a German Jew, sent to her death by the Nazis?
“You know that I was wounded in the last days of the War.” Bertram’s hand now passes to his abdomen, which I know from his medical examination is where he sustained an injury. “When I was in the veterans’ hospital, a pile of mail reached me. Things that had been sent to old addresses and routed to the Army while I was away fighting. The date on the postcard was January eighteenth, 1943. It took more than two years to reach me …”
He holds up the card and taps the spot at the top; the paper looks as if it is on the verge of falling apart.
“This is what I came back to,” he says in a thick voice. “This is what the word victory means to me.”
“Bertram, you told me that Rosamund died when your brother struck her with your uncle’s Ford,” I say.
“My uncle had a Duesenberg. A large touring car, with running boards,” he says.
“You said she died in an automobile accident,” I persist.
“Yes,” he says deliberately. “But that was not the truth.”
“Why would you make up something like that?”
“Sometimes it’s not possible to tell the truth.”
“But why say that your brother killed her?”
Bertram’s eyes go cloudy. “I’m surprised you would ask that. You spend half your life talking in metaphors.”
“Then it was a metaphor. Your story about the car accident.”
“I suppose so,” he says offhandedly, glancing distractedly around the room.
“You seem to be looking for something,” I say.
He brings his eyes back to rest on me. They are filled with a baffling expression: part contempt, part anguish, part dissimulation.
He sighs. “Sometimes, I don’t see the point of all this.”
“I’m simply trying to make sense of things,” I say, deciding that now is not the time to ask about the fact that Bertram speaks German. If his neighbor was German, logic would demand that he is German, too. On the other hand, the story about the postcard could itself be a fabrication, everything he is saying about his brother, about Rosamund, a delusion.
“Have you ever considered, Doctor,” Bertram says, “that perhaps there is no making sense of things?”
Mr. Cuthbert is waiting for me in the dayroom. He cannot bear to have sessions indoors—he says it makes him feel like “a bug under glass”—so we talk while walking the grounds, no matter the weather. We head toward the tennis courts, where some Hall Two patients are going at it with gusto, watched by Gilmore, a wiry orderly well-liked by both patients and staff for his decency and sense of fun. Tracking the ball, he moves his head back and forth like a metronome. The sound of a rooster reaches our ears; it is the Professor, wildly waving his racquet and crowing in celebration of a good shot.
“He’s quite the colorful poultry, isn’t he,” Cuthbert says indulgently. “Speaking of my fellow travelers, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the new inmate. Mr. Thunderer. There’s something not quite right about him.”
I smile. “Do you mean Mr. Reiner?”
“He’s less about Rain than about Thunder.” Cuthbert squints into the sun and pulls down the brim of his fedora; his thin face is dominated by piercing eyes and full, red lips that seem somehow a mistake.
“Perhaps he’s in the right place; we’re hoping to help him.”
“Yes, of course.” Cuthbert tips his hat to the gardener crouched by the pathway pulling weeds. “But I’m not talking about mental illness. It’s his existential condition I’m concerned about. Don’t you feel it? The way he hauls the abyss with him wherever he goes. It’s beginning to upset the other patients. You’re going to have to stay away from the Ontic where he’s concerned; it will only get him into trouble. A strict Ontological Therapy, that’s what’s called for. No time for Being where there’s no time for Time; take the paradoxical course and you’ll cure the oxymoron. Not that he’s stupid, mind you; I’d venture his intelligence quotient tips the scale—a match for you and me put together, and that’s saying something. Speak softly is my advice, and carry a big Heidegger.”
Cuthbert smiles, pleased with himself. He waits, as if wanting his speech to sink in, then continues. “May I be perfectly frank with you?”
“By all means.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. I’m not sure he’s up for it.”
“Up for what?”
Cuthbert leans toward me, removes his hat, and holds it up to his mouth as a shield. “For a journey to the dark side. I have a bad feeling. In the two years and four months that I’ve been in residence, I’ve never once been wrong on this score. This isn’t the place for him, Doctor, if you don’t mind my saying. He belongs elsewhere.”
“Where do you think he belongs?”
Cuthbert slaps his hat back onto his head and looks momentarily confused. “Why—elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere doesn’t have a such as. Elsewhere is by definition somewhere else. The unimagined, the unknown, the terra incognita, if you will.”
“There’s something about Mr. Reiner that troubles you,” I say carefully.
Cuthbert looks impatient. “This isn’t about me, Dr. Harrison. This is about Mr. Reiner. Look, I’ll do my best to infiltrate; perhaps I can be of help. Leave it to me and I’ll see what I can do.”
“You’ve never mentioned what you did during the Great War,” Bertram says after taking his seat.
“Is there a reason I should have discussed this with you?”
“Well, no. I suppose not.”
He looks disgruntled.
“We’re here to talk about you, Bertram.”
“Yes, Doctor. But I’m curious. Were you in the British services, or had you already come to this country?”
I sometimes forget that I have an English accent. “Why is this important to you, do you think?”
“You could give me this one, considering.”
“Considering everything I’ve divulged to you.”
“I owe you, then.”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Very well, then,” I say. “I came of age toward the end of the War. I trained to be a medic and was posted for a time at a hospital outside London. Then I was sent to the front—I was in France for almost a year.”
“As I was.”
I risk a smile. “It was a different war, you understand.”
Bertram’s face darkens.
“I didn’t mean to be glib,” I say. “I just mean that our experiences were certainly different.”
“Did you do any hand-to-hand combat?”
“I spent a short time in the infantry, at the very end of the War. There was such a shortage of men …”
Something flashes in Bertram’s eyes. “Did you ever shoot Jews?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Executions. Point-blank. Dozens, even hundreds at once. Did you ever participate in an operation like that?”
“There were no operations like that in the First War,” I say quietly. “Besides, I was in the British Army.”
“You never shot a Jew, then,” he says.
“Actually, I may well have shot a Jewish German. They fought in the war along with all other German men.”
My answer seems to surprise Bertram. “I hadn’t thought about that,” he says mildly.
“May I ask you something?”
“Why do you ask if I ever executed Jews?”
“In our war, ordinary Germans did that—policemen, civilians. Roaming the Polish countryside—execution squads, killing thousands upon thousands of Jews: women, old people, babies. Everyone.”
“Bertram,” I say gently. “You were in France and Germany. France and Germany. Could you tell me what Poland has to do with it, for you?”
“You were talking about Poland.”
“Yes, I suppose I was.”
He sighs and looks out the window. I follow his gaze, aware that I no longer keep track of the seasons as I once did. When I first came to work here, I was acutely aware of the lavish seasonal changes on the grounds and in the surrounding woods. I made a study of the trees and plant life, and became familiar with the sounds of the little creatures I would encounter on my walks. How joyful I would feel at the eruptions of autumn color, or the bare branches and fields of white. Now the seasons simply glide by.
“We could talk about it—about Poland, about what happened to the Jews,” I say.
“To what end?” he says. “What would that achieve?”
“Maybe nothing. But we psychiatrists believe in a leap of faith. That if you express what’s on your mind, it is likely to take us someplace useful.”
“Yes. You and me.”
“But you said this is about me. That we’re here to talk about me. Why, then, do you say us?”
“I like to think we’re in this together. That I’m here to help you.”
“To help me what?”
“Make sense of your experience. Find a way toward some measure of peace.”
His crackling look of hostility surprises me.
“But you never executed Jews. In the streets. Or into huge pits they were made to dig with their own hands.”
“Neither, I daresay, did you.”
Bertram sits back in his chair with a distasteful look of triumph.
“Perhaps, Doctor—and of course, you know so much. Such a learned man. But perhaps you are unaware of my origins?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Did you not know that German is my mother tongue? I made a point early on of mastering English. It was not so difficult—I was only twelve when I came to this country.”
“No, Bertram, I did not know you were from Germany.”
“Precisely,” he says.
“But that doesn’t mean you massacred Jews.”
He recoils, and then glances at the clock on the mantel.
“But what if my brother did?” he asks. “When my mother and I came to America, he stayed behind with my father. So of course, he became a Nazi. Maybe that’s why he’s trying to find me. Maybe he wants to silence me. So that I won’t turn him in for what he’s done.”
I awaken to the sound of rain. I have an early morning meeting, so I dress quietly, not wanting to awaken Ursula. Outside, the downpour is heavier than I thought and the cold slaps at my face. I cross to the Peabody Storage Annex and duck into the tunnels that snake beneath the hospital complex. Having fallen into disuse decades ago, they are dank and eerily quiet. I’ve heard that incoming psychiatric residents are told by their seniors that the tunnels are haunted by the ghosts of patients past and that, before my time, a trainee hazing involved spending a night alone there.
Belowground, the air is thick with mold and dust. The passageways are dimly lit with low-wattage fluorescent bulbs that give off a resonant, mechanical buzz. I feel as if I am trespassing on the past. I half-expect to come across quaintly dressed doctors from another era, and patients wearing crazed expressions, tied to the wall and reeking of bedlam. I know that the passageways are used to store discarded furniture, but here, they are empty.
The painted concrete walls are peeling in places, and elsewhere dark with amoeboid spreads of damp. Here, a huge stain looms, uncannily familiar. Hunched over a table: the outline of his head, his shoulders, the hand holding a scalpel, unnaturally still. My mind fogs, I tumble through time. It is Mac, my childhood friend: a faceless shape pressing out through the concrete.
Mac McDermott—a tall, strong boy, a year older than I—was passionate about bugs. Nothing mattered to him more than finding a specimen and coming to understand what made the creature operate the way it did. In his room, an array of jars, cotton wads soaked in ether, pins large and small. I often sat with him as he made his preparations for a mounting; every now and then, I would assist him, taking care to do exactly as he said.
Though partial to the more glamorous butterflies and moths, Mac also loved spiders, beetles, and giant red ants. He was bitten and stung more times than I could count, though this did not seem to deter him.
Even as a child I suffered from insomnia. I was a night pacer, agonizingly restless. One night, while I was pacing in our front yard, my feet propelled me the three and a half blocks to Mac’s house. Beneath his bedroom window was a gauzy patch of light. I got the window with the first stone. A corner of the curtain rose, and Mac’s face appeared. Moments later, he was at the front door. We crept together up the stairs to his room, where I saw that Mac had a dissection under way. His desk was laid out like a miniature operating table: instruments lined up along one edge and pieces of insects—wings, beetle torsos, parts of worm—carefully arrayed in sections. He got back to work, holding a spider down with the sharpened tip of a pencil and then prying off the legs one by one with a pair of tweezers.
I heard a sound coming from the corner of the room. There, nuzzling up against an old stuffed animal, was a small puppy, three or four weeks old.
“I didn’t know you had a puppy,” I said excitedly.
“I found him yesterday in the gutter.”
I walked to the puppy and picked him up. “Poor thing,” I whispered. “We’ll take care of you.”
Mac paused in his work, holding the tweezers in midair, and looked at me coldly.
“Have you named him yet?” I asked.
Mac rose to join me where I crouched, cuddling the pup. He took the dog brusquely by the scruff of its neck. The puppy startled and reached his paws out to me.
“Don’t pet him,” he said, still eyeing me coldly, speaking with the tone of finality that adults use when they will brook no disagreement. I had the sudden feeling that something was terribly wrong. Mac went back to his spider; after a few minutes, he seemed to forget that I was even there.
Before I knew what I was doing, I was back out in the street, running blindly toward home.
My footsteps thud loudly through the tunnels; I am running, frantic. My breath comes in wisps. I’d mistakenly supposed I would simply head in the direction of the main building much as I would above-ground, but the passageways wind this way and that, and I have no idea where I am going. I scan the walls left and right; too much time seems to be passing.
Finally, a door. I tug and tug some more, the panic rising. My arm wrenches, I pull with all my strength, and it gives; I almost fall back, then hurry up the stairs and thrust open the door at the top. I have emerged in the rear of the Rogers Gymnasium. Brushing off my trousers and coat, I take a moment to collect myself.
In the late afternoon, I find Matilda in the dayroom, involved in a game of contract rummy, Cuthbert, the Professor, and Bertram Reiner making up a foursome. This is a favorite time on the hall, when the patients, along with some staff, if there’s nothing pressing to be done, have an hour to relax before dinner.
Friendly greetings are exchanged, and then I address Matilda. “The new patient is finished with the preliminaries and will be up shortly.”
“The preliminaries!” Cuthbert gives a good-natured snort. “How I love the native gibberish. You just have to remember to reverse everything, and then the meaning doesn’t go astray. In this case—the finales; out with the old life, in with the new. I hear the new fellow is a luminary. I’ve always liked writers. They make the likes of me look positively sane. Which is to say, negatively the same. Does he know about the staff? Confined to the cell every bit as much as we are—nunlike and monklike, too, I’d say; who’s kidding who, anyway? A seminary for the luminary. Hah!”
Cuthbert throws down a sequence of four clubs. “Sixth contract, satisfied. Moving on!”
Bertram picks up a card from the pile with an indulgent smile. “The new man will love your tour of the hall, Cuthbert. Are you prepared?”
“I keep it primed.” Cuthbert grins. “Like to tag along?”
“Five times is enough. Or has it been six?”
“Nurse Willoughby tells us the new man’s a lush,” Cuthbert says gravely.
“If we’re going to use labels, we prefer the technical term,” I say pleasantly.
“Oh yes, forgive me. Acute alcoholism. With or without neurasthenic features?”
“Why not leave the diagnostics to us?” I say with a smile. “You’ve got quite enough on your hands with the ward tour.”
Matilda puts her cards facedown and rises with a sigh. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I have things I must attend to.”
“Be a sport, Dr. Harrison, and finish up Nurse Willoughby’s hand,” Cuthbert ventures.
About to reach for an automatic excuse, I realize I have a few minutes to spare. Cuthbert looks so eager.
Matilda steps aside and hands me her cards. “Now don’t mess things up for me.” Her eyes twinkle. “It’s the best I’ve ever done against these cardsharps. I’m counting on you.”
“I’m a bit rusty, I’m afraid,” I reply. The seat is warm, even the cards carry a trace of Matilda’s heat.
“No such thing,” Cuthbert says crisply. “It’s like riding a bike. Spinning wheels are the name of the game; Psyche on this ship is the dame of great fame.” He sweeps us with his gaze, bewildered but pleased by his clever, clanging rhyme.
“Isn’t there a separate ward for alcoholics?” Bertram asks, laying down a sequence of cards.
“They’re an exotic breed,” the Professor chimes in. “Not like your garden-variety melancholic, or your delusional type. There just aren’t that many of them, so they’re thrown in with the rest of us. But I’m with Cuthbert; in my experience, they’re crazy as loons. I’ve a great friend who was a lush—er, alcoholic—here. He’s back out, now. Sends me chocolate cherries, from time to time.”
“They do very well on Hall Four,” I say. My eyes drift to the doorway just as Matilda passes by; she pauses before the tall window to talk to an orderly. I find myself transfixed; she is framed by the burnt reds and oranges of dogwood and oak, and for a moment, in the crisp autumn light, time freezes. Something distracts her, and Matilda cocks her head. Then, she turns and catches my eye; I am taken aback by the warmth of her smile.
“The drunks are fun to watch, the first few weeks,” Cuthbert continues. “They shake like jitterbugs. If we can get this one to keep it up until Christmas, we can plug him in to light the tree.”
Bertram and the Professor laugh. I’m struck by how personable and at ease Bertram is here, on the ward, in contrast to his somber, often bristling mood in our sessions.
“Come on, Dr. Harrison,” Cuthbert urges. “Make your move. You have the reputation of one of Shadowbrook’s finest nurses to defend!”
In session today, Bertram gloomily raises the subject of a relationship he had with a woman just before entering the hospital; he refers to her gallantly as “my lady friend.”
“When I was with her,” he says, “I would sometimes feel like I had a chance at a new life. Lately, it’s been feeling impossible.”
“What has been feeling impossible?”
“The idea that I will have a new life. I don’t know how to tell her—if I go back to seeing her after I leave here—that maybe it’s not meant to be.”
“She’s clearly important to you.”
Bertram nods, his face etched with pain. “I don’t want to disappoint her.”
“Do you feel that you will?”
“I’m a psychiatric patient,” he says thinly.
“You’re a soldier with a reactive disorder,” I rejoin.
I cannot help thinking that the woman is not an old lover, as Bertram maintains, but someone with whom he is involved in the present. Could it be that Bertram is carrying on an affair with a fellow patient? Now that I think about it, on our last mixed outing, I noticed him deep in conversation with Mrs. Seabrook, a young widow from Connecticut. I also noticed Marianne Freeman, a homely girl not yet twenty, staring at Bertram adoringly at Tuesday night canasta.
“Real connections can withstand a good deal more than a temporary hospitalization,” I say.
“It’s just that she’s … well, she’s fragile,” Bertram says. “You wouldn’t think it upon meeting her. But I don’t think she’d be up to a real knock.”
“And being with you is likely to end up being a real knock for her,” I say.
He nods. “But when I’m with her … the problems melt away. It’s as though I’m the man I was before I went off to fight.”
There it is: the slippage into the present tense. My heart sinks at the thought that it might, after all, be Marianne Freeman: a vulnerable soul, and so young.
An image of Delilah flaps into my mind like a delicate, exotic bird; I am crossing the room, sitting beside her, my hand is on her warm shoulder, and her face transforms with the heat of an uncharacteristic smile.
After Bertram leaves, I call Ursula.
“We’ve had an incident on Hall Eight,” I say. “You’d better go ahead and eat without me.”
“I made duck,” she says, her voice pinched with disappointment. “In red wine sauce,” as if the sauce might make me reconsider.
“I’m sorry, Ursula, really I am.”
“Should I keep a plate in the warming drawer?”
“I don’t know how long it will take …”
“Don’t forget to order something up from the dining hall, then.” I can hear she has resigned herself to another evening alone, but I feel I simply cannot go home.
I drink a half bottle of wine with my meal and then work steadily through a mound of paperwork. Around me, the hospital slumbers: the sane and the insane united in sleep.
When the church bells strike midnight, I lock up my papers and head out. In the dark, everything is transformed: the familiar expanse of grass has turned into the black, unmoving surface of a lake; the trees are animate, silhouettes lurching toward me each time I look away.
At the bottom of the hill, where the path forks, I see movement: a man in evening dress, walking back and forth before the bench. He pulls something from his pocket, strikes a match, cups his hand to light a cigarette. By the time I reach him, he is seated, and I can see that it is Mr. Thomas, Bertram Reiner’s servant.
“Good evening,” I say.
Thomas regards me without surprise. “Dr. Harrison,” he says, rising.
“Please, don’t get up.”
Thomas offers me a cigarette, which I decline.
“A lovely night,” I say, sitting beside him on the bench.
“I was just thinking that myself, sir.”
We sit in comfortable silence, Thomas drawing quietly on his cigarette.
“Might I ask you something, Dr. Harrison?”
“By all means.”
“I understand you were a medic. In the First War.”
“Yes, I was.”
He flips the cigarette butt to the ground and steps it out.
“That’s something we have in common.” His voice is uncertain, as if he wants to say something further.
“You were a medic as well?”
“Once a medic, always a medic. I served in France, and then after VE Day, I was on cleanup duty in Germany. Only it wasn’t really over, as you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“The casualties didn’t stop—on either side. At least, not for some time.”
“Did you serve with Mr. Reiner, then?”
“Not exactly.” Thomas shifts uncomfortably on the bench. Something unexpected occurs to me.
“You didn’t treat him, did you?”
His eyes waver and he turns away. “In a fashion,” he says oddly. “We met on the ship, coming home.” He glances at his wristwatch and gives a little sigh. “Well, I’d best be getting back. Good evening, Dr. Harrison. I enjoyed talking with you.”
The pathway leading toward my home is dimly lit by streetlamps; as I step in and out of the puddles of light, I have the sensation that I am wading into the past. At the fork, Ursula’s forced nonchalance on the telephone this afternoon comes back to me. All her fine energy poured into closing herself down. How different from when we first met.
That day, at Dover, we were both twenty years old. The War was over; I had been away for a year—though not the kind of time that can be measured in days. When I had left England on the boat out, it was my final year of secondary school and my parents had been standing at that very dock, wearing threadbare coats and unsteady smiles, waving bravely. I returned an orphan: no one to greet me, no one to celebrate my surviving the madness, no one to take me home.
They died within six months of each other—first my father, of a heart attack, and later my mother, in a freakish accident. She’d been walking along the high street of our town when without warning a building collapsed onto her. The friend who had been standing beside her was unhurt.
I remembered running as we carried stretchers through mud so cold it stung, the thick ground frothing red, in places, from dripping torsos and limbs. Even when it was too late, and it was mostly too late—when a boy poisoned by gas spewed yellow and blood, or another, ripped open at the middle, tried, wild-eyed, to stuff his entrails back in—even then we ran through the smoky hell, the guns rat-tatting all around us, as if what we were doing were not insane, as if there really were someone, this one, this boy, left to save. I wrote it all down in dozens of letters I sent home to my mother and father; I don’t know how they felt when they read my words. Later, I found those letters in my mother’s desk and felt her presence again, as if she had sprung back to life.
The news of my father’s death, and then my mother’s, reached me by telegram; twice I sat in a trench, breathing dank air and holding crinkly yellow paper, only to rise again to carry the silent or screaming wounded, the dying or already dead.
Disembarking at Dover, we trudged down a long gangway, safe now but stunned as sheep going to the slaughter. And then there I was, at the end of the ramp, looking into the face of an American Red Cross girl who was offering me a cup of tea. I took the cup, then a biscuit from the chipped plate beside the tea urn. She seemed to see something in me, and I, desperate, bewildered, longed to be seen. I couldn’t take my eyes from the healthy plumpness of her cheeks, the smooth pink curve of skin visible just above the uniform, which sloped down snugly over her breasts. Then, she smiled.
What I had seen in France made me old, and yet I was a virgin. I had watched my friends go to brothels and return doleful and drunk; it was not something I could bring myself to do. And had an opportunity arisen to romance a local girl, as some soldiers did, I’d not have known what to do. The terrible rumbling that had plagued me for more than a year—that fanned out from my groin and set my whole body on edge—rose in me again, though differently: no longer an illness but an urge for life.
As I lingered by the Red Cross table that day, Ursula gave a husky laugh and shot me darting glances. Finally, I asked if I might meet her again, and in her warm, American accent, she said yes, that was something she’d like. In that instant, everything changed; vitality poured through me, and only then did I fully realize that, for the past year, I’d been suspended in a disturbing netherworld—alive, yes, but dormant.
Three days later, having secured lodgings, I came for her. We sat in a teahouse with sagging lace curtains in the window, sipping tea made from overused leaves and whitened with a clump of powdered milk. My eyes clung to her—to her shyly smiling lips, to the shapely hands nursing the warm cup. There, in that tarnished little place, I imagined so vividly Ursula’s hands traveling the length of me, my own unbuttoning her clothing, smoothing her round hips, discovering the secrets of her sex.
After two long weeks of agonizing frustration, the landlady, Mrs. Hopkins, took pity on us; she turned a blind eye to the fact that one of her good Red Cross girls was taking a soldier into her room. I climbed the stairs behind Ursula; I’d never seen anything so beautiful as the swivel of her hips in her floral print dress.
In her room, she lit the gas lamp, and then turned and let out a little gasp. “Oh!” she said, as if encountering me for the first time. Her eyes strayed from my face and came to rest on the buckle of my belt. She stood there waiting. The moment elongated, and when finally I raised my hand, it moved as if through water—slowly, thickly, silently. I touched Ursula’s chin, lifted her head. Her eyes were bright, the heat pouring from her; it pulled something from me—a bitter hunger, alive as a fox. I made my actions tender, though all of me snapped; I nuzzled my prey without baring my teeth. It was cold in that spare room; as I undressed her, I warmed her all over, kneading her rounded flesh, coaxing the rise from her. And then we were on the worn sheets, beneath the heavy blanket, the world split to ripeness. My gentleness turned determined; I gripped her roughly, felt her stiffen for a moment in fright and then take pleasure in it.
Three weeks later, Mrs. Hopkins hosted our modest wedding in the parlor she’d managed to keep looking elegant, despite the privations of the war. Six of us that day; two bottles of wine, a plateful of hard scones. I held Ursula’s hand. I was startled and happy, and for a few fleeting moments, felt my desolation might never return.
The leaking away of our marriage happened slowly: a soft, brutal dripping in the background of our lives. The heat had already begun to evaporate when we discovered Ursula could not have a child, but the doctor’s verdict was the coup de grâce; after that, she seemed to lose all desire. By the time I met Delilah, Ursula and I were living a life of tepid routine.
I come to a halt before my house, which is almost purple in the moonlight. Something tugs at me, weighs me down—and then, with almost hallucinogenic force, I see Delilah smiling once again.
© 2010 Shira Nayman
What People are Saying About This
"The Listener explores with great subtlety and perceptiveness the issues of trauma and guilt, illustrating the complexity of the way in which a mind that has experienced horrors whether as perpetrator or victim may create elaborate defenses that are paradoxically selfdestructive. Combining a psychologist's insight with the skill of a gifted novelist, Shira Nayman dramatizes brilliantly the futility of the belief that there is any absolute point of objectivity from which the most horrific experiences may be examined." Charles Palliser, author of The Quincunx and The Unburied
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Listener includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Shira Nayman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Dr. Harrison, the distinguished and steadfast head of the Shadowbrook mental hospital, meets the charismatic and brilliant Bertram Reiner – diagnosed with a severe case of Battle Fatigue – he finds the most challenging patient of his career. Their sessions leave Dr. Harrison slipping into a frightening, but also strangely enlivening, existence that renders the boundaries between sanity and insanity disquietingly blurred. When Dr. Harrison discovers that Bertram is having an affair with Matilda, the head nurse whom he himself has feelings for, his own yearnings threaten to throw his sanity into the balance. The Listener explores the burdens of history, memory and insanity in a post-World War II asylum.
Questions for Discussion
1. The narrative begins with a prologue, a slice of time from the middle of the story. “Bertram is gone.” (p. 3) How did this frame your reading of the novel? How did this shift your thinking of Bertram and of Dr. Harrison as you read deeper into the story?
2. What were the root causes of the deterioration of Dr. Harrison’s marriage to Ursula? What impact does that relationship have on Dr. Harrison’s thinking throughout the book and the way that he interacts with other people?
3. Bertram speaks of Velazquez’s paintings and of carnival fun houses, saying that there is a power within mirrors. “There is the promise of all that – of finding yourself. Of losing yourself. Of being stolen away. You discover that, in any case, it’s all just mirrors…. I feel it more strongly than ever: the secret behind the mirror.” (p. 50) What do you think Bertram meant by this? How did you interpret what he was trying to tell Dr. Harrison?
4. Dr. Harrison describes shell-shock as, “the disruption is at the mystical level. The elusive, illusory foundations are sucked to nothingness, and everything collapses.”(p.75) Do you think that Bertram was suffering shell shock, or was his visit to Shadowbrook Hospital related to some other ailment or consequence? Why or why not?
5. Bertram speaks of “Those moments that happen sometimes – you know it immediately. When your life changes.” (p. 95) What were the key changing moments for you the reader in this novel? Do you believe in life-changing moments?
6. When speaking about church and God, Cuthbert speaks of the dangers of “knowledge.” (p. 136) He goes on to say that “In order to truly be, to live in the divine presence, you must not know anything in the present. Memories are safe, if you can erase their original livinginthemoment source – like forgetting a sound, but remembering its echo… you may remember, but you may not know.” (p. 136) How do you interpret this statement? Do you think that he is right? What role do God and religion play in the novel?
7. Dr. Harrison recalls Bertram saying that the two of them were “the same. Spies, both of us. Masters of Disguise.” (p. 147) How does Dr. Harrison’s interpretation of this change throughout the novel? Does he think that Bertram is correct? Do you as a reader? How are Bertram and Dr. Harrison alike? How are they different?
8. “Perhaps it’s not the profession that deforms us.” Dr. Harrison says, “Perhaps whatever you become as a professional is really only the expression of your own nature – that same nature that made you choose the profession in the first place.” (p. 165) Do you think that he is right? What defines us most as people and how is it manifested?
9. “The coroner regrets to inform me that a former patient of mine, Bertram Reiner, was found dead in a hotel room on the outskirts of Phoenix, an apparent suicide.” (p. 212) How did you feel when Bertram was pronounced dead in the middle of the novel? What did you think of Dr. Harrison’s reaction to his suicide?
10. Janice says, speaking of Bertram, “He’s a very special – a very unusual – man. It was more important to me that I do right by him.” (p. 257) Why are people so attracted and loyal to Bertram? What is it about his character or actions that cause people to feel this way?
11. How did the narration by Dr. Harrison slant your reading and interpretation of the novel? Was he reliable? How did your trust in him throughout the book change? How would the story have been different if Ursula or Matilda narrated the story?
12. By the end of the book, Dr. Harrison finds himself in a very different state, both mentally and physically. Did this surprise you? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Reading Group
1. To learn more about shell shock and its treatment read: Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis by Anthony Babington or The Poetry Of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma And Healing In Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney And Siegfried Sassoon by Daniel Hipp.
2. Several now-controversial treatments are used at the Shadowbrook facility in the novel. To learn more about the history of these treatments read: Shock Therapy: The History of Electroconvulsive Treatment in Mental Illness by Edward Shorter and David Healy.
3. The deep and lasting effects of war are captured brilliantly by the World War I poets; their insights are sadly still relevant today. Read their wonderful, lyrical work in: Minds at War:The Poetry and Experience of the First World War, edited by David Roberts—particularly the poems of Wilfred Owen.
4. Discover more about Shira Nayman and her previous book Awake in the Dark, by listening to composer Ben Moore’s score at http://www.shiranayman.com/
A Conversation with Shira Nayman
1. Recently your collection of stories, Awake in the Dark, was set to music. What type of music or sounds do you envision for The Listener? Do you often listen to music while you write?
The composer Ben Moore wrote a beautiful, aching piece of chamber music, “House on Kronenstrasse Suite” for a musical-theatrical performance associated with my first book, “Awake in the Dark” (performed at St. Francis College Theater, under the auspices of “The Brooklyn Historical Society,” and also showcased at The Lincoln Center Institute in New York). For the launch event of “The Listener,” I asked Ben if he might set three poems of the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, to music.
Owen, who died in battle seven days before the end of WWI, is arguably the greatest English-language War poet; more than any writer I know of, he profoundly captures what he referred to as “the pity of War.” (My book goes into the same territory; all my characters have in some way been ravaged by War and continue to battle the psychological legacy of their Wartime experiences. One of my characters remarks “the War never ends;” sadly, we see that this is true today for many of our soldiers who have served, and continue to serve, in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
I imagine Owen’s poems set to grave, lyrical melodies, dramatic yet intimate, anguished but also touched with a celebratory sense of life. The melodies I hear in my mind’s ear have a haunting grandeur and also ephemerality, somehow capturing the strange, changeling quality of emotions, which are both fleeting and also a bedrock of human experience. I’m hoping Ben’s busy schedule will allow him to write the music; Owen’s poems mean a great deal to me, and were with me throughout the writing of this book.
I don’t listen to music when I write—I find the intrusion of another emotional realm distracting.
2. The novel is full of both light, bright moments and deep, dark themes. What was your favorite passage or section to write?
One of my favorite characters is Cuthbert, the generous, ironic, gregarious patient; to me, his quirky sense of reality offers insights that were rewarding to imagine. During the final readings of the manuscript, I found myself looking forward to the sections in which he appears, hoping to pick up new, illuminating meanings in his remarks—and to my delight, he didn’t let me down!
I also enjoyed writing the sections involving Dr. Ronald Fairbairn; he is an important psychoanalytic figure, who made a tremendous contribution to the understanding schizoid experience. Being transported to other realms is perhaps the most compelling aspect of fiction writing for me; time-travel is part of this, and being able to go back in time and see and experience people moving around the world is exhilarating. Plucking a character from real history and setting him up in my own imagined universe felt a bit mischievous and transgressive; I hope the late Dr. Fairbairn doesn’t mind!
3. Authors often remark that they put a little bit of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with Dr. Harrison, Bertram or any of your other main characters? How are you different?
I think I identify a little with most of my characters, although not always in literal ways. Working in psychiatric hospitals, I was struck by the disconcerting inequalities of power—and also by the slippery nature of the operating categories: sanity and insanity, “appropriate” versus “inappropriate” behavior. I was keenly aware of the moral complexities and ambiguities and perhaps, most powerfully, of the ways in which the sense of our shared humanity seemed often set aside or obscured.
There was a temptation for some people on the “staff” side of things to feel immune to the kinds of terrible troubles that patients suffered—as if there were an invisible, impenetrable divide that kept us over here and them over there. The inspiration for the novel came from these perceptions and experiences, which I found both disturbing and intriguing. In imagining my characters into various complicated situations, I was able to explore various dimensions of the intriguing, human struggles I encountered and puzzled over throughout the time I worked in mental hospitals.
4. You have had success as a writer, as a clinical psychologist and as a marketing consultant. The book speaks of one’s professions defining oneself – which of those spheres do you identify with most?
I think I am pretty much the sum total of all my professional involvements; in a way, they feel all of a piece. My work both as a psychologist and as a consultant has taken me into many fascinating worlds, including working in politics at the national level. I feel as if all these adventures feed my literary imagination, and also allow me to contribute in certain worldly ways that feel nourishing and worthwhile.
Though I suppose that being a “writer” feels most like “who I am”—though I think of this more as a condition that happens also to be an occupation, rather than as a career choice. Being a writer is how I think and feel and wonder, so in a sense, it’s not so much a sphere with which I identify but rather a truth about my nature.
5. What was your inspiration for this story? Why did you set the book in the place and time that you did?
I had the idea for the book towards the end of the time I was working as a psychologist in a psychiatric hospital, though the book ended up being somewhat different from how I originally conceived it. The world of the hospital was so vivid and alive, so pulsing with raw and interesting experience and emotion—on both sides of the divide, so to speak: both patients and staff were intriguing, and their interactions and dynamics even more so. Being there was like being in a fiction-writer’s paradise, a kind of tropical jungle of the soul.
The last hospital I worked in was fabulously elegant and moody—esthetically more like a series of old-world mansions designed for luxurious lives of ease; the hallways and offices were beautifully appointed, Persian rugs covered the floors and the walls were hung with interesting paintings. The hospital had a network of underground tunnels, much as I describe in the book; there was something wonderfully gothic about them—and symbolically over the top about the idea of subterranean passageways joining the buildings of a mental hospital. The fact that the tunnels were used to store old furniture from decades past made them even more perfect; I used to imagine the lives of all those countless, anonymous patients as I tip-toed past ancient bureaus and mattresses and towers of chairs, breathing in the dusty, dank air.
Those underground spaces also felt like an uncanny physical incarnation of the fictional imagination—journeying away from sparkling, conscious, daytime realities, into the murky, dimly lit realms of the subconscious where fiction springs to life. It was as if my characters were wandering down there, within, and I only had to creep down the stairs to find them.
6. You grew up in Australia but you live in Brooklyn now. How have the places where you have lived influenced your writing style and focus? What places in your life have shaped your writing the most?
I suppose my fiction is preoccupied with questions of national identity and cultural belonging—issues that are writ large in periods of wartime or other historical kinds of trauma (the book I’m now working on, set when Australia was an enormous penal colony, is another case in point).
Where I’m from and where I’ve lived lie at the heart of these themes; an Australian, whose parents immigrated from South Africa, whose grand-parents were Lithuanian, myself having lived in a number of countries. I suppose my personal history equips me to think about questions of national identity and how that plays into one’s psyche—how one thinks about oneself in relation to one’s country, what one is asked, or forced, to do in the name of one’s country, how these matters define who one is and how one experiences the world. Perhaps the fact that I seem to fling myself around the world on a fairly regular basis is part of my own preoccupation with the question of national/cultural identity, with feelings of homelessness, and the ways in which people search for and shape their own sense of “home.”
7. The book is told, compellingly, from Dr. Harrison’s point of view. As a female writer, did you find it difficult to capture his voice and feelings? What was the greatest challenge writing from the opposite gender?
I loved trying to climb into Dr. Harrison’s skin; for me, such challenges are what make writing fiction interesting and rewarding. I often think about something Tolstoy said: that a writer might walk past an army barracks and peer in through the window to see a soldier, sitting at his table—and that this moment may be enough to create a vivid, veridical novel about that very man, or a man like him.
Those glimpses usually have an almost vibrating intensity about them; it might be an internal glimpse, rather than an external one, some pulsing insight or uncanny recognition, but they kind of hit you in the gut and one doesn’t have a sense of choice about them.
So when I realized that Dr. Harrison was the true narrator of the book (I started out writing it from Matilda’s point of view), I just kind of hunkered down and did the best I could and hoped that Dr. Harrison would let me in enough to allow me to do justice to his struggles and joys and pains. The challenges I faced in bringing the book to fruition did not really feel related to the question of writing from the opposite gender, so much as getting inside the nuances and complexities of Dr. Harrison’s psychology.
8. Who is your ideal reader of the book? What do you hope they take away from your novel?
I would like to think that my book offers the kinds of pleasures I seek when I read; a good, suspenseful story that holds one’s interest, while also making the reader confront complex and challenging questions. I also like to learn something from the books I read—to find myself in interesting worlds or historical periods. I suppose, then, that I write for readers like myself.
9. To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Who do you enjoy to read? What books influenced you to become a writer?
The problem with this question is that my answer might sound grandiose, so let me preface it by quoting Hannah Arendt, who talked about writers, whether living or dead, as her closest allies and friends; she referred to Rahel Varnhagen, for example, who died more than seventy years before Arendt’s birth, as “my best friend.” My favorite writers feel like soul-mates for me, too, and by saying I compare myself to their style, I am only saying that I resonate with their voices and themes.
So...regarding contemporary writers: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, Charles Palliser, Pat Barker, Peter Carey, Rodney Hall. I realize in looking at this list that these writers are all British, Irish or Australian! I suppose this is not surprising, given that I am Australian—a commonwealth writer, after all. But then there’s also Toni Morrison, Steven Millhauser, and Paul Auster, to name a few Americans whose work I admire.
As for writers who are no longer living, I most love and have been influenced by Joseph Roth (German writer who died in 1939), Robert Musil (Austrian writer who died in 1942), James Joyce, George Eliot, Stendhal, Turgenev. I also want to mention John Williams (author of the brilliant novel, “Stoner”).
10. Do you have plans for your next book?
I have several projects going at present: a new adult novel with a working title “Beyond the Seven Seas,” which is set in the mid-1800’s in Australia and England, involving the penal colonies. I’m in the early stages of this project, though two other books are close to being finished. One is a young adult novel about a thirteen-year-old girl who catapults back in time and across many countries where she encounters her female forebears and accompanies them on pivotal adventures in her family’s history. The other is a novel set in the same time period as “The Listener” in three locations—a Long Island mansion, presided over by an Englishman with a mysterious past; post-World War II London, and also Shanghai.