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Choosing Life

I remember exactly how I first came across The Other Side of You. It was about fifteen years ago. Yet another relationship had hit the buffers and I was consoling myself with a mini-break. Browsing in the airport bookshop, I spotted a new book by Salley Vickers. I was aware of the author’s psychoanalytic background, and when the blurb told me this was a tale of lost love, it drew me like a magnet. Even as I was putting the book in my bag I could feel its intensity, but I had no idea it would become the main event of my weekend.

The purpose of my trip was to visit a friend, an English artist who had settled in a European city. He and I had supported each other through years of romantic ups and downs. Many times he’d dried my tears and made me laugh, while I’d seen him floored again and again by one infatuation after another, only to rise courageously to meet Cupid’s next assault. We were both used to living in a state of fragile hope, but when he told me that this time he’d found his true love and asked me to come and meet her, I heard the level certainty in his voice and believed him absolutely.

Intuition is our best guide in love and friendship. It also drives the narrative in The Other Side of You. ‘It can take years to understand in your head what your gut knows from the start,’ says Gus Galen, close to the beginning of the book, talking of psychotherapy from the therapist’s perspective. (Gus, by the way, is the wise mentor and friend of the book’s narrator Dr David McBride, a psychiatrist specializing in death and suicide. More of David in a moment.)

I find plane journeys too exciting for reading, so saved the book for later. But as soon as I had settled into my hotel, waiting for my friend to call, I was on my bed with The Other Side of You. At p.5 I began to cry. I can tell you the page numb

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I remember exactly how I first came across The Other Side of You. It was about fifteen years ago. Yet another relationship had hit the buffers and I was consoling myself with a mini-break. Browsing in the airport bookshop, I spotted a new book by Salley Vickers. I was aware of the author’s psychoanalytic background, and when the blurb told me this was a tale of lost love, it drew me like a magnet. Even as I was putting the book in my bag I could feel its intensity, but I had no idea it would become the main event of my weekend.

The purpose of my trip was to visit a friend, an English artist who had settled in a European city. He and I had supported each other through years of romantic ups and downs. Many times he’d dried my tears and made me laugh, while I’d seen him floored again and again by one infatuation after another, only to rise courageously to meet Cupid’s next assault. We were both used to living in a state of fragile hope, but when he told me that this time he’d found his true love and asked me to come and meet her, I heard the level certainty in his voice and believed him absolutely. Intuition is our best guide in love and friendship. It also drives the narrative in The Other Side of You. ‘It can take years to understand in your head what your gut knows from the start,’ says Gus Galen, close to the beginning of the book, talking of psychotherapy from the therapist’s perspective. (Gus, by the way, is the wise mentor and friend of the book’s narrator Dr David McBride, a psychiatrist specializing in death and suicide. More of David in a moment.) I find plane journeys too exciting for reading, so saved the book for later. But as soon as I had settled into my hotel, waiting for my friend to call, I was on my bed with The Other Side of You. At p.5 I began to cry. I can tell you the page number because I am rereading the book as I write this piece, and on p.5 I’m crying again. It’s here that David, or Davey as he was known as a child, tells us how, when he was 5, he lost his beloved only brother, who himself was just 6. The older boy was about to shepherd them both across a road when he was killed by a reversing lorry. This is the weight that Davey has carried ever since, the incident which underlies the work he has chosen to do. While I was absorbing Davey’s tragedy – I too had suffered childhood bereavement – my friend telephoned. He was sorry, he knew I would understand, but they couldn’t see me that evening. Their new relationship was fragile and, with so much to work out, they needed time to themselves. Would I, at their expense, enjoy dinner at the hotel? Without an ounce of resentment I spent that night and much of the next day gripped by The Other Side of You. What is it about this novel? Salley Vickers’s protagonists are almost all people who, in the E. M. Forster sense, connect, and of these David McBride is surely the supreme connector. Through him, the author takes us inside the most mysterious of the caring professions and, unusually for Vickers, she makes David speak directly, in the first person. He is a moving and compelling narrator, and his voice is perfectly pitched. We forget that the author is a woman and hear this man’s gruff vulnerability, together with a combination of modesty and astuteness, in every word he speaks. In his thoughts we discover his subtlety and humanity. Good novelists can imagine their way into almost any situation, but I wonder how much of her own experience as a psychotherapist enabled Salley Vickers to bring David to life so powerfully. Published in 2006, the book looks back to an earlier time – perhaps the 1980s, though there is no exact reference to the date. We experience the small, intense milieu of late twentieth-century British psychiatry, partly wedded to old methods but also moving into a more modern and nuanced approach. David works and lives in a time of change. He is compassionate and creative and seems to enjoy a free rein. He engages a psychotic ex-patient to clean the private clinic where he works so he can keep an eye on him, and he takes clinical risks, some of which go badly wrong. Even outside his work this is a world far from our own, with cigarettes smoked between courses, drinks taken before driving, and of course no instant communication – in fact, if there had been, the story might never have happened. So much has altered, and yet, as literature from any period can remind us, the heart never changes. While listening to his patients, David takes cues from his other senses, especially the sixth, and is unsurprised when a patient utters words close to his own unspoken thoughts. He is alert to all kinds of signs and clues and, like many of Vickers’s protagonists, puts faith not only in the consolations of art and literature but also in their power to open the doors of perception. The book’s title, drawn from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, takes us with David, in his quest to unearth the hidden side of things, into the realms of poetry, painting, dreams, mythology, the Bible and, indeed, into the wholly unaccountable. He believes that while the afflicted are terrified of being seen in their abject human failure, actually ‘we are in anguish until someone finally finds us out’. That this maxim applies also to himself, he learns through his work with one suicidal patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank. An in-patient in his hospital, Elizabeth is, at first, almost unable to speak. They sit for long periods in silence. But one afternoon the breakthrough happens. David remarks that he has been to the National Gallery to see a painting by Caravaggio, an artist she has told him she admires, and soon she begins to talk. Nothing improper happens, but David immediately breaches the fifty-minute rule. Employing a little poetic licence, Vickers allows this one long psychotherapy session to weave through the central sections of the book. David sits with Elizabeth into the night, offering her sandwiches, coffee and even whisky as she describes events that concluded seven years ago – events that, locked up inside her shame and sorrow, have made her wish to end her life. I love this novel. David’s observations are full of beauty, and via his perfect recall of their marathon talk he gives us, verbatim, Elizabeth’s brilliant evocation of her one true love, Thomas Carrington. An art historian specializing in the work of Caravaggio, Thomas is also, we discover, a genius of intuition. From the very moment of their meeting, he has seen Elizabeth in her totality and has loved her completely. His quicksilver mind springs off the page with such vigour that his becomes the voice that speaks most eloquently and forcefully on the side of life. As Elizabeth continues her account, we are drawn in so entirely that there seem to be four people in the consulting room – David, Elizabeth, Thomas and the reader. I could give you more of the story. I could tell you how, as Thomas argues ever more fiercely for the rightness of their being together, Elizabeth retreats further from her desire, and how she clings, out of duty, to her desultory marriage to someone else. I could spill the beans about what happens to Thomas or about David’s own marriage. I might wax lyrical about Gus or talk about the interplay of terrible bad luck and wonderful synchronicity in the novel. I could even try to explain how Caravaggio becomes its linchpin. Or I could simply say that what takes place between David and his patient represents a rare kind of love, hoping that this will entice you to find your way, if you haven’t already, to this book. Time brings perspective, and The Other Side of You is a novel built on layers of memory. It introduces us to David when he is looking back to the stage of his life that contained his encounter with Elizabeth. The story she tells, in turn, refers to events that happened long before that. Fifteen years ago, in my hotel room, I would have said that this novel was Elizabeth’s. When I next read it, a decade on it became just as clear to me that it was David’s story. Even later, I saw it must belong to them both, as healing takes place on both sides. And now I see that Thomas, the absentee whose life force is so insistent when neither Elizabeth nor David can quite feel theirs, also has a claim. After almost a whole weekend, interrupted only by sleep or brief wanderings through foreign streets, I came to the end of The Other Side of You. If I had hoped for a neat resolution, I was only partly gratified, but that hidden truths had come to light and lives had been freed, I was certain. I closed the book and returned to real life. It was Sunday, and there was plenty of time before my evening flight. I met my friend and his new love, and we had a wonderful reunion. Whatever their anxiety had been, it was gone, and they are, to this day, happily together. And a year after that weekend, I too met the man to whom I am now married.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Sarah Wedderburn 2024


About the contributor

Sarah Wedderburn is a freelance writer for cultural institutions, and a poet. She lives in rural east Kent.

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