AUTHOR: F.R. TALLIS
Details: ARC received from Macmillan
“A man dreams that he is a butterfly, and in the dream he has no knowledge of his life as a human being. When he wakes up he asks himself two questions: am I a man, who just dreamed that he was a butterfly? Or am I really a butterfly, now dreaming that I am a man?”
James Richardson, the narrator of this story, is a young and promising psychiatrist in England in the 1950’s. When he is offered the opportunity to work under the esteemed Dr. Hugh Maitland he accepts the offer immediately. Without a second thought he says goodbye to his old life and travels to Wyldehope Hall in Suffolk to take up his new post. In Wyldehope Hall, Dr. Maitland is running an experimental new form of treatment for patients with long term and extreme disturbances. The patients, six women, are kept asleep for months on end in the hope that they will, eventually, wake up cured of their problems. If the experiment were to be successful it would bring professional glory for both doctors involved in it.
It isn’t long after arriving in Wyldehope Hall that Richardson is starting to notice strange and at times disturbing occurrences. It is nothing he can put his fingers on, but something about the place feels wrong and some strange happenings aren’t easily explained through logical reasoning.
More worrying is Dr. Maitland’s reluctance to discuss the medical history of the women they are treating in “The Sleep Room”. And how is it possible that the six women appear to be dreaming at exactly the same time?
Although it is clear that there are others in the Hall who are uncomfortable in their surroundings, Richardson can’t find anybody who is willing to share their experiences with him. How can he discuss the disturbing things he’s felt and seen with others without having his own sanity questioned? And is the danger he senses real or something Richardson is only imagining? Is there something wrong with the house or is our young doctor losing his mind?
Part medical and part ghost story this is a fascinating book. What appears at first to be a purely medical story, focusing on dubious and controversial medical practices, slowly but steadily turns into something completely different. The ghostly manifestations are mentioned in an understated manner. The narrator, James Richardson, is very uncomfortable with the idea that something otherworldly might be going on around him. His logical mind and training don’t allow him to accept that the things he is experiencing might have anything other than a logical conclusion. And even when he reaches the point where he can no longer deny that the manifestations have to be supernatural he goes out of his way to find a logic based explanation for them. While this makes perfect sense as far as the character of Richardson is concerned, it does mean that this story isn’t nearly as ghostly as it might have been.
The medical side of the story on the other hand is, for me, the real thriller. The absolute power of Dr. Maitland, the unquestioning way in which those working for him go along with his ideas and treatments and the way in which the women in the Sleep Room are treated is the stuff of nightmares. Especially since everything described in this story sounds very credible and realistic. This story combined with the little I know about the normal practices in psychiatric hospitals in times past makes it all too easy to believe that what is happening to the women in this story is probably not as far-fetched as I might like to think.
I liked the way the tension in this story creeps up on the reader. In an almost imperceptible way this book gets darker and darker. So imperceptible in fact that by the time it all comes crashing down I was taken somewhat by surprise. And then, just when I thought the story was finished and things had come to a dramatic but overall satisfying conclusion the author threw me for a loop, leaving me uncertain about what exactly had happened and what to believe. It made for an impressive but not entirely satisfying conclusion.
I like that Tallis, who in his previous books has a fervent follower of Freud’s theories as his main protagonist, chose to have the main characters in this book debunk Freud and Jung as unscientific.
Mr. Tallis produces good books. His writing is smooth and his stories and characters are fascinating. Through his descriptions of the area surrounding Wyldehope Hall he gives the story exactly the right atmosphere for ghostly manifestations. And his knowledge of medical procedures and theories is obvious although not surprising considering that he is a clinical psychologist. The fact that he clearly knows what he is writing about makes this story more disturbing, rather than less.
Overall I would call this a fascinating combination of medical thriller and ghost story. The completely unexpected revelations at the end of the book only strengthen that fascination, although they also left me with one or two, unanswered, questions.