Saving The Children

One of Freud’s greatest insights was that psychic life is an ongoing drama. Inside our minds great forces rage and collide and strange convoluted processes are developed in order to avoid internal obstacles and keep the status quo. Former versions of ourselves wander through the inner labyrinth, exerting terrific pressure on our decision making and often dictating reactions in illogical ways. We have this charming, quaint idea that we’re in control of ourselves, but it only takes a little stress, conflict or fear to make a mockery of that. It’s a jungle in there.

Lilian Nattel’s latest novel, Web of Angels, goes further than any novel I think I’ve ever read in dramatising the strange brilliance of inner life. This is because she takes the brave and I think unique step of having a main character who has DID, dissociative identity disorder, or what used to be called multiple personality syndrome. On the outside, Sharon Lewis is an ordinary wife and mother of three. But inside she switches continually between different alters, who respond to the requirements of different situations. She can be Lyssa, the tough, athletic teenager, or Alec, the man of few words who steps in with authority or Callisto, the one who’s job it was ‘to take over when the others were overwrought’. The function of all these alters as it is so insightfully expressed, is to protect the life, not to live the life. Hence, when each alter steps forward, the memories of the others are blanked. Sharon has no memory of the time when Lyssa or Callisto is in charge and it is from this quirk of psychology that dissociation arises. Sharon Lewis had the kind of abusive childhood which meant that she could not process the trauma of what happened to her, and so in its protective flexibility, the mind splits, creating an internal army to deal with what is way too much for one small child. It is both the tragedy and the genius of the mind that it can find these extraordinary solutions to extraordinary events.

In Web of Angels, Sharon and her husband, Dan, are struggling to come to terms with Sharon’s unusual personality. She has not quite accepted the truth of her situation, and is in therapy with the calm, infinitely compassionate Brigitte, a process which she knows will help her but which is currently exhausting. The novel begins, however, with an event that will have a significant impact on Sharon’s life. Her son, Josh, has a new girlfriend, Cathy Edwards, a sweet super-good girl. But Cathy’s rebellious teenage sister, Heather, commits suicide just as her pregnancy reaches full term. The mother of the two girls is a paediatrician and she steps in quickly to perform an emergency caesarian, saving the child. This event understandably disturbs and horrifies the neighbourhood. Why did Heather, who had adapted so well to her pregnancy, take her own life? And was the caesarian the act of a quick-thinking mother or an unnaturally calculating one? The parents, Debra and Rick, are pillars of the local community, people of the utmost respectability and surely beyond suspicion. And yet, Sharon is peculiarly placed to be suspicious. Her unusual powers of perception, her heightened emotional awareness and her own experiences lead her to believe that something dreadful is occurring in the Edwards household, and to mobilise her own family to help.

This is a novel that deals with the most commonplace of lives and manages to show the rich complexity that lies behind them. It also shows most poignantly how atrocities can be happening right under our noses, and how healing it can be to step in and do the right thing. I thought it had a beautiful structure, as Sharon’s own acceptance of her condition gradually leads her to come out more honestly to her own family and to use her difference as a remarkable force for good. And I found it immensely moving. There is so much unkind stigma attached to mental conditions like DID, and yet this novel shows how it is simply an extreme version of what goes on inside everyone’s mind. I have a dear friend with DID and as far as I can see, Lilian’s book is an outstanding portrait of that condition. This is, of course, what literature was designed for: it can create images and worlds that do not exist tangibly in reality but which are no less real for that. It can also give voice to those who have never been allowed one, or in this case, several voices. It is, I think, exciting when authors open doors onto new territories. All in all this was an unflinching and powerful exploration of the best and worst in life: the human ability to destroy innocence and our ability to rescue and heal. Read it if you can.

26 thoughts on “Saving The Children

  1. This sounds wonderful. It’s a condition I find fascinating as, as you wrote, it is similar to what happens inside of all of us, the scale is larger, and it may be very painful but similar. I can’t think of another novel treating this. Very fascinating.

    • Caroline, I feel sure you would really like this novel. You and I both have a sharp interest in books that work the psychological perspective and this one was particularly fascinating.

  2. This does sound good, and even though it deals with daily life it seems like the issues are difficult ones. It sounds as though Lilian handles them well. I like the image you make of the mind as a labyrinth and former selves wandering around in there–a little scary really, but that probably explains a few things!

    • Danielle, I am so fascinated by the mind. It has such weird ways of solving problems, and often they work, but only at the cost of other essential emotional or mental factors. I don’t think we have any idea of the power our minds possess or the extent to which they rule our lives (I am pretty sure that a great deal of illness is related to our mental responses, too). I really enjoyed this book and am pretty sure you would too. And the happy ending felt just right.

  3. Sounds like an intense book, but very good. And so glad to hear that it portrays mental illness in a realistic way. It’s gotten better but there is still so much stigma attached to it.

    • Stefanie, I think you would enjoy this one, even though it is not the sort of book I would normally recommend you. But it is so cleverly done and so fascinating – it would appeal to your combination of scientific and literary interests!

    • David, you can get it from amazon.ca I believe it will be published in the US later in the year – but Lilian herself may have more information on that (and I’m hoping she’ll see your comment). If you are still having difficulties, let me know and I’ll send you my copy. I would so love to know what you think of this.

  4. This seems like a serious read on serious issues. The review itself got me thinking, especially your points about the defenses of the inner self. I think this phenomenon also occurs with normal people albeit to a smaller degree. Many times people become stronger in times of crisis. Wonderful review as usual!

    • Nivedita, thank you for your lovely comment! This book really did get me thinking about the way the mind works – the often convoluted and creative way! And we do step up to the plate in amazing ways in crisis – even if we have to pay for them afterwards.

  5. Great review, which means I’d like to read it, as anything about the nature of the self I find fascinating. Is it going to be available in the UK do you know as I can’t find it listed here at present?

    • As I mentioned to David, Web of Angels has just come out in Canada. U.S. and U.K. sales are hopefully around the corner! Calling up your local bookstore and asking for it may help the cause. But in the meantime it can be ordered from Canada, though I shake my head at shipping costs. I know it’s also available as an ebook at amazon or kobo–can you download it from amazon.ca or kobo.com if you’re outside of Canada?

      • Bookboxed – I am so hoping it will come out in this country. Lilian’s publishers are effectively Random House, so there is every reason to be hopeful. My copy was a cheap second hand one from a New York bookstore (good old amazon market place sellers). I had no idea it wasn’t out in the US when I ordered it!

  6. Pingback: Saving The Children | Tales from the Reading Room « A Novelist's Mind: Lilian Nattel Online

  7. I’m always interested in books about the inner workings of the mind. So much that’s been written about multiple personalities has been sensationalized, while Web of Angels is a very realistic look at how this disorder can be integrated into a “normal” life. I really enjoyed the novel, and it’s made me interested to learn more about DID.

    • Becca – I loved your review of this book! And yes, I am completely fascinated by the psychological angle. Reminds me to get more psychoanalytic reading done – the mind is completely fascinating. There is never any need to sensationalise what we do in extremis – it is usually pretty sensational as it is!

    • Lilian – I do not know where your comment has gone and I am so sorry about that. I checked the spam filter to no avail! But thank you for letting me know – this comment I will certainly accept in lieu! :)

  8. This is an excellent review, Litlove. I was already planning to read the book but am doubly excited now. I’ve got Lilian’s two first novels and plan to read the three together over the summer, once I order and receive Web of Angels.

    I’m happy to have had a little fair warning, however, about some of the subject matter. I’m not usually a timid reader, but it can always help to be prepared!

  9. I know of no other work of fiction that has a main character with DID. This sounds a fascinating and sensitive portrayal of what someone with this disease goes through. The only things I’ve read on the topic are non-fiction so I think I would like this fictional version.

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