The Other Side of You
by Salley Vickers
In a Heady New Novel, a Sensitive Psychiatrist Observes the Art of the Mind
A review by Michael Dirda
In Salley Vickers's earlier novel about love and loss, Instances of the Number 3,
she wrote: "Some say this is what is meant by the law of karma, a
stepping aside from a moment of possibility only to be forever haunted
by its unrealised spectre." That Henry Jamesian sense of a missed life
-- of what might have been -- suffuses The Other Side of You
and reminds us that Vickers is a novelist in the great English
tradition of moral seriousness. Her characters suffer, they struggle to
be true to both themselves and the promptings of the human heart, and
they eventually accept that a quiet accommodation to one's lot may be
the most that any of us can hope for. Yet sometimes, during even the
most seemingly drab existence, a moment or a memory of real unclouded
happiness may be unexpectedly snatched from the maw of time.
The Other Side of You
focuses on a period of crisis in the lives of several people, but
chiefly the psychiatrist David McBride and the depressed Elizabeth
Cruikshank. For no obvious reason, Cruikshank -- an apparently ordinary
middle-aged woman, the mother of two grown children -- has attempted to
kill herself. As McBride tries to encourage his withdrawn patient to
open up and talk, he finds himself thinking more and more about his own
death-burdened past. When he was only 5, his 6 1/2 -year-old brother
was killed before his eyes in a traffic accident. Forty years may have
gone by, but for McBride this is still the central event, in some ways
the only true event, in his entire life.
The real problem, the
good doctor himself realizes, is "not how to cure or be cured but how
to live....The people we were treating were not so much looking for
a remedy for anxiety or depression, they were looking for a reason to
be alive." McBride soon comes to understand that he and Cruikshank are
fundamentally the same. "We are most of us badly cracked and afraid
that if we do not guard them with our lives the cracks will show, and
show us up, which is why we are all more or less in a state of
vigilance against one another." Eventually, Cruikshank does let down
her vigilance for a moment but only to murmur a few almost inaudible
words: "I was faithless." Not "unfaithful" but "faithless" -- and
therein lies the tragedy of her life.
As the now older McBride
recalls his patient and this period from his past, we soon realize that
there has been some kind of rupture between then and now. But what
could it have been? He tells us about his marriage to the sexy,
fashion-conscious 42-year-old Olivia, who calls him "darling" and has
never wanted children. We learn that he was once in love with Barbara,
now the wife of his colleague Dan. He introduces us to his various
patients, including a man who is convinced that a wolf lives inside his
head and a violent schizophrenic on the mend. Above all, he ponders the
human condition and his task as a healer:
"My mind darted
anxiously to Elizabeth Cruikshank, whom it was my duty to try to
perceive. How far did she want me to see her? But then, how far do any
of us want to be seen? On the one hand, it is what we fear most, that
our shamefulnesses, disloyalties, meannesses, cruelties, miseries, the
sum of our hopeless, abject, creeping failures be finally laid bare.
But the very opposite is also the case. I believed -- or believed I
believed -- that we are in anguish until someone finally finds us out.
And the deeper truth is that human consciousness can hold two
contradictory states at once, and all our unmet longings wear an
overcoat of fear."
Elizabeth Cruikshank's story is the central panel of The Other Side of You
and I don't want to say too much about it. In essence, she was offered
a chance at happiness but, lacking confidence, simply couldn't believe
her luck. As McBride observes, "it is a hallmark of the damaged that
when it comes to their own desire instinctively, ruinously, they tend
to court the opposite. So at the point when it dawned on her how much
it mattered that he should stay, she suddenly asked, 'Shouldn't you be
going? Haven't you things to do?' " This remark leads to terrible and
unforeseeable consequences. There exist, after all, "invisible
turnstiles which, having let us pass easily through them, yield to none
of our most strenuous efforts at return."
Vickers herself once
practiced as a psychologist and has said that her favorite authors are
those who explore the tribulations of the heart -- Jane Austen, Fyodor
Dostoevsky, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. In her own novels -- the most
famous is Miss Garnet's Angel -- Vickers often uses works of art
as entr?es into the self. In this new book, the painter Caravaggio is
crucial, in particular two very different depictions of the supper at
Emmaus, that moment when the risen Christ reveals himself to two of his
disciples. "A real artist," explains an art historian named Thomas
Carrington, "knows the other side of himself better than the side he's
in at the time. You don't paint as you are; you paint as you're not.
But you only know what you're not through knowing what you are."
later, McBride stands with Elizabeth Cruikshank before a canvas of
Caravaggio's youthful David, who is holding the head of Goliath:
also knew those moments of choice when Yes and No collide...the
comprehension that all our acts have consequences, which we must bear,
and with which we must live consciously, if life is not to become a
desperate flight from ourselves."
This is, I need hardly say, a
heartbreaking novel and, yes, a love story. Some readers may feel that
Vickers's diction is outmodedly formal and her observations verging on
the sententious. I don't. After all, she is writing about grief and
regret and self-knowledge, of how to live with the recognition that one
has made the wrong choices and that they are unchangeable. As Dr.
McBride says, "It's naive to pretend that life for many people isn't
pretty wretched much of the time."
The title for Vickers's novel
comes, quite appropriately, from T.S. Eliot ("Who is the third who
walks always beside you?...Who is that on the other side of you?").
Eliot is, after all, one of the laureates of disappointment, of "the
passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened."
Vickers's prose possesses something of that same still, sad music.
"Poor all of us," she writes, "if we but knew it, blindly crawling
along our parallel lines, unmindful that all around us are others as
much in need of comfort and consolation."
If you enjoy the work
of Marilynne Robinson, Penelope Fitzgerald, James Salter or Anita
Brookner, you should be reading Vickers. All these authors reflect,
with grace and gravity, on life's moments of sorrowful epiphany, so
achingly summarized by the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Heywood:
O God! O God! That it were possible
To undo things done; to call back yesterday....
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