I was in the mood for colour and action. So it was that the first sentence on the back cover of Alex Pheby’s debut novel promising an inmate on the run from a secure mental hospital pushed Grace to the top of the TBR. The vividness of the first paragraphs pulled me right into the alternate world.
Mr Peterman ran away.
It was snowing hard, but he left that place and ran until his lungs sang and his skin burned with cold.
And then he stopped.
He was in a forest, straining to catch his breath. The air tasted of antiseptic. Pine fresh. It was like his room, only richer and cleaner. It filled his mounth and his throat and soon his chest was on fire with it. It was invigorating. Or sickening. Or both.
He shot a look over his shoulder. Nothing – no-one – just the snow, the trees, and the feel of his chest rising and falling against the slick polyester hospital smock. The fine black hairs on his bare arms bristled in the wind, and the back of his hands were red. Snow shone white all around. Was this freedom?
I’m with Mr Peterman. Feeling his exuberant though shortlived exhilaration. He is soon despondent of the snow which is inconveniently creating tracks for his hunters to follow. Despondency turns to despair when he gets caught in a bear trap and ends up dependant on an unnamed hag and her granddaughter for his survival.
Like the bear trap, or even a Grimms fairytale, the plot of Pheby’s novel snaps in sudden nightmarish ways. Mr Peterman trades imprisonment in the hospital for captivity in the woods during which the relationship between him and his rescuers/captors is both vividly realistic and increasingly surreal. What is a sane reader to make of it all? In a blinding flash I remember that Peterman is mad and, therefore, a reliably unreliable narrator. Of course, this is all an illusion.
I am vindicated in the second half of the novel when Peterman is recaptured and taken back to the hospital. His psychoanalyst interprets his fantasies in the same way as I do. Normality is once more in sight. Or is it? There’s something OCD about the doctor – a specific history and a personal determination to prove her professional worth which is clouding her judgment. And just when I have a grip on this, the fairytale/nightmare in the woods reemerges and subverts my expectations once more.
Where does that leave me? Hunting for my own gingerbread house … needing to reread to establish the lines of reality because of the expert blurring of its fringes.
Dedicated to Xanthe, the author’s stillborn daughter, Grace is also a poignant study of loss and the ensuing madness of grief. It’s no coincidence that Peterman’s equilibrium slips catastrophically at the moment he loses contact with the young girl he comes to love as the daughter he never had. A girl he finally calls Grace – a name with as many interpretations as the text of Pheby’s novel. Take your pick, they probably all apply with a bittersweet poignancy to the relationship of Peterman and Grace and, by extension, to the author and his own child. In the final words of the novel, “such is the way of things between fathers and daughters that, even if they never met again, it was enough.”
/ Post-interview revision