Some of the most unsettling and memorable stories concern the fragility of the human mind. From classic novels such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner through to the more recent cinematic adaptations of psychological novels, like Psycho, The Shining, Fight Club and Irvine Welsh’s Filth, people are in equal parts fascinated with and terrified by the thought that events, often out of our control, can affect such causal psychological carnage.
All of the above texts can be read as psychological thrillers, but they are also looked upon as ‘horror’ stories.What could be more terrifying than the thought that your mind is going to make your body do something that your conscious self doesn’t want it to. We like to think that we are in control of all we say and do. If you think that there is any truth in Rene Descartes’ proposition that the only way to prove our own existence is through thought, what does it mean for any sense of self when we can cannot trust what those thoughts are? Psychology attempts to understand what constitutes an individual’s identity, and the best psychological novels make us question who we really are.
Juliet Conlin’s novel, The Fractured Man, does just that by examining the life of a man who should be able to answer all the difficult questions, but who is beginning to realise that he’s not even sure who he is anymore, if he ever knew in the first place. Elliot Taverley is a young psychologist living and working in London in the early1920s, a key date as it is just after World War I, and is in the early days of the study of psychoanalysis. The theories of Freud, Adler and Jung were opening a whole new area of exploration into the study of the conscious and unconscious mind, and as with all new science, there are some techniques which are more highly regarded than others.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that if ever the advice ‘Physician, heal thyself’ were applicable, it is to Elliot Taverley. Outwardly confident, and bold to the point of being rash in his treatment of some of his patients, but deeply scarred by events from his own past, he embraces the controversial idea of handwriting analysis, and when he applies this to the enigmatic Raphael it becomes clear that the answers he seeks are more to do with his own desires and needs than those of his patient.
As any good Freudian could have told you, Elliot’s problems began in his childhood, and it his relationship with his mother and father, but particularly with this older brother, that have made him the man he is today, and he is not one he likes very much when he looks at himself in the mirror. Conlin has rather wonderfully depicted a man who is barely holding on to his own grasp of reality while at the same time trying to help others regain theirs. The writing is never sensational or over the top. In lesser hands you could have had little sympathy for Elliot, especially as he becomes more paranoid and erratic, but this is a novel which calls for understanding and empathy.
Perhaps the most memorable and moving example of this can be found in the story of Jenny Wilson, one of Elliot’s patients. While it is the mystery of Elliot and his relationship to his brother and Raphael which drives the plot, Jenny’s situation is arguably the more disturbing as it is all too believable and real. It is in these sessions that we can see the man Elliot wants to be, and can be, as he puts his concern for her over his own problems. Her tale is a reminder of the good that psychoanalysis, and counselling in general, can do, and that many people’s lives have been bettered, and saved, because of it.
Like Jekyll and Hyde, Justified Sinner, and many other ‘psychological’ texts, you can also have a supernatural reading of events in The Fractured Man, and the settings used in the novel heighten the suspense. From foggy London town, to eerie war-torn Russia, the atmosphere helps increase the tension as matters and mystery come to a head, and you are never at ease as you read, waiting for the next reveal. I defy anyone to put the book down when you have hit the final 100 pages. You simply have to read on to the bitter end.
The novel also doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors that man is capable of, whether in the name of war, or supposedly in the name of love. (There is an Arctic scene involving seals which will certainly live long in my memory). But The Fractured Man never shocks just for the sake of it. There is always a point being made, and, in conclusion, it is a novel which is more concerned with ‘why’ rather than simply settling for describing ‘what’ and ‘who’. It is a great example of why the psychological thriller has come to have such a hold on us. It reminds us that it’s OK to be scared, in fact it’s often impossible not to be. But, when something can make you better understand that which scares you the most, then you have something special.
The Fractured Man is launched at Looking Glass Books, Edinburgh, 6.30-8.30pm, 28th October.