Isobel Callaghan, a struggling young writer with a difficult past, collapses on the way to buy provisions at the corner store and soon finds herself—much to her surprise—recovering from tuberculosis in the self-contained society of Mornington Sanatorium.
Australian writer Witting's (I is for Isobel, 1989, etc.) quietly brilliant novel was published in her own country in 1999 and is appearing in the U.S. for the first time; it's set in the middle of the 20th century. Anxious, poor, and isolated, Isobel is worried she’s losing her mind. She’s quit her job (translating German mail at an importers) in a rage and, buoyed by the encouragement of a highbrow editor, has taken an attic room in a Sydney boardinghouse to write fiction. Now, overridden by social anxiety and rapidly running out of money, Isobel has begun to deteriorate in a way she doesn’t understand. Upon collapsing in the street, she’s taken to a local hospital; her madness, it seems, is better known as tuberculosis. “How could she explain the relief she felt at learning that this thing had a name and a location, that there were people whose business it was to deal with it?” she wonders. Surrendered to her new circumstances—a material improvement, all things considered—Isobel finds herself falling into the sanatorium’s rhythms. Though the patients are all bedridden, to varying degrees, the place has a social scene of its own, with the doctors, nurses, and patients forming a parallel universe outside of space and time. Witting’s characterizations are staggeringly sharp—it is hard to imagine a novel more keenly observed—simultaneously heartbreaking and (subtly) hilarious, not because they're exaggerated, but because they are so unsettlingly, overwhelmingly true: Isobel's pathologically self-centered roommate (“You’re not one of those people who read all the time, are you?”); her beloved Dr. Wang; the birdlike Miss Landers, who runs the sanatorium’s knitting-based occupational therapy program. But as Isobel recovers, she must come to terms with her life outside the confines of this miniature world—and here, too, Witting is as astute and unsentimental as ever.
A compassionate masterpiece.