A doctor struggles to understand a woman who allegedly murdered her own child in Lev’s (A Feast of Tears, 2010) thriller.
Dr. Ephraim Ligget prefers being left alone as he works in the psychiatric treatment ward of the Western Washington State Hospital. Half of his face is scarred due to a fire years ago that killed his parents, and his apparent survivor’s guilt has led to him to create another, secret personality, Dr. Hamburger, “the angry part of Ligget’s soul,” who occasionally takes over. Ligget is handling a case for the admission ward of the Forensic Unit, which treats the criminally insane, so Jennifer Stanley becomes his newest patient. Cops arrested her after her son, Edward, claimed that she tried to kill him; he further stated that he witnessed her murdering his younger brother, Robert, whose body police uncover. Jennifer’s lawyer is hoping for an insanity defense, but Ligget is merely assessing her competency to stand trial, which isn’t necessarily related to her state of mind during the supposed crime. Still, the psychologist has trouble completing his report. Tests indicate that Jennifer has a high IQ, so she may be feigning some behavior, such as her disbelief that her son is dead. But Ligget ultimately concludes that she’s not manipulating him and that she’s suffering from PTSD from an unidentified trauma. Although he does eventually rule on whether she’s competent for trial, he remains obsessed with the question of her sanity and looks into her personal life: “His life had been reduced to this—a single case and a single person.” Has Jennifer merely deceived him—or is she actually in need of help?
Lev’s novel effectively establishes its hospital setting, where much of the story takes place. One scene, for example, opens with Mrs. Densby and Mrs. Brown at a tea party, anticipating a waiter bringing them tea; it turns out that the two ladies are patients, and the “waiter” who ignores them is a staff member. The hospital is populated by a curious mix of characters, including Frank, a patient experiencing tactile hallucinations who’s been seen by multiple doctors. But although the patients are shown to be a burden at times, the staff members cause just as many problems by skimping on job duties or by too easily prescribing antipsychotic medications. Jennifer is, appropriately, one of the more striking characters—an enigma who understandably baffles Ligget; her son Edward’s perspective reveals specifics about Robert’s murder but provides readers with no more insight into Jennifer’s mind than the doctor has. Nevertheless, Ligget himself, with his alternate personality, is engaging and multifaceted. The author, a practicing psychologist, writes in a style that’s intelligent but always intelligible, even when employing psychiatric jargon, as in his description of Ligget’s initial assessment of Jennifer: “Thinking is realistic and goal directed, speech is relevant, no evidence of hallucinations or delusions, possible dissociative symptoms.” Ligget’s analysis of Jennifer becomes an ongoing mystery, and Lev opts for a pragmatic ending in which nothing’s black and white.
A psychological tale that’s riveting, perceptive, and accessible.