A doctor and a patient confront each other at an upscale Westchester mental asylum in the late 1940s.
The unreliable narrator of this first novel is Henry Harrison, director of Shadowbrook hospital, who reveals his spectacular unfitness to be in charge of a psychiatric institution as he exposes layers of weakness and paranoia. Off-duty, Henry drinks and smokes opium. His professional past includes a murky involvement with a female patient who still haunts his dreams. His marriage is disintegrating, and he has developed a fixation on Matilda, one of the nurses. Morally compromised on several levels, Henry now finds himself tested by a new patient who fought in World War II. Bertram Reiner’s experiences in part mirror Henry’s; his intelligence challenges his doctor’s authority; and his affair with Matilda turns Henry into a jealous voyeur. Further alter-ego issues revolve around Bertram’s brother, a German soldier who committed atrocities against Jews. Although Nayman (Stories: Awake in the Dark, 2006) emulates Pat Barker in viewing war through the eyes of a doctor dealing with the psychological havoc it wreaks, her dark, obsessive novel eschews the Regeneration trilogy’s detached tone in favor of trance-like scenes and moody visual intensity akin to a black-and-white movie melodrama, complete with lurching perspectives and looming shadows. The narrative becomes even more feverish in its final third, as it spins towards a long-signposted conclusion.
Vividly imagined and evoked, but this deft depiction of the shifting sands of mental frailty is overlong and ultimately ephemeral.