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Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

other side of you vickers Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

Caravaggio's famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man who has walked anonymously with two disciples reveals himself as Jesus. The scene echoes Jesus's earlier words that he will always appear when others gather in his name, and this theme of rebirth, although more of the spirit than of the spiritual, becomes a key motif in Salley Vickers's novel The Other Side of You.

The Caravaggio in question plays a prominent role on a number of levels in Vickers's fourth novel, but perhaps most importantly as a catalysing, connecting force that drives her two major characters to seek catharsis and redemption through extended narrative self-examination. David McBride is a psychoanalyst specialising in grimly suicidal patients, with whom he feels perhaps not so much a sense of affinity as a vicarious reverence, haunted as he is by the childhood death of his brother. McBride has spent his adult years in a manner that is both self-flagellating and disconnected: perhaps only out of a sense of self-loathing he endures a listless marriage with the narcissistic (and rather ironically named) Olivia, while his days are spent treating those who are capable of only the most fleeting and superficial engagement. But when McBride is confronted with a patient whose perceptions of the unabating difficulty of life and the welcome release of death resonate with his own, but whose reticence is all-encompassing, he desperately searches for a point of mutuality, finding it at last in the rich and haunting complexity of Supper at Emmaus.

It is not just the painting itself that is so evocative to McBride and his patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, but also the context in which the painting was created, and McBride and Elizabeth take a hermeneutic approach to the painting's narrative, reflecting on how despite Caravaggio's tormented life and less than saintly nature, he was nonetheless capable of such deeply moving work. The redemptive and restorative power of narrative is thus firmly established, and it is this framework to which Vickers cleverly attaches her novel. Elizabeth's initially laconic stoicism gives way to an astounding reflection on a past love that in her floundering ambivalence she let slip away. Over a seven hour session, Elizabeth and McBride travel together along the road towards reflection and atonement, simultaneously reflecting on their pasts, and in David's case, coming to terms with the reality of his brother's death, a reality he has spent a lifetime denying. Both characters, who up until this point have been rather unremarkable, suddenly come into being as a result of these stories. This reconciliation and elucidation through the power of narrative is also further emphasised by the fact that the novel is being narrated by an elderly McBride, who is reflecting on his past as he writes his memoirs.

But it's not only the redemptive power of narrative the Vickers examines, however. The Other Side of You cleverly reflects upon the ability of art, literature, and story alike to bring to life once more the past. Is it through David's memories, for example, that his brother lives on, and through Elizabeth's spoken reflections that she is able to restore her passionate love affair to some sort of vaguely extant status. But there's also a more sinister undertone here, I feel, and it's that narrative is not only capable of restoring and redeeming, but that it's also a tool that can be used in the recreation and manipulation of the past. McBride, for example, has spent years telling himself a particular 'truth' about his brother's death , and the reality turns out to be something very different. Moreover, McBride has also forced particular narratives on to his patients, such as the man who believes a wolf resides in his head, and in surprised when his patients fail to act in line with these narrative artefacts. But perhaps what's most eerie about this is that I had the sensation that Elizabeth's lover, about whom, with the assistance of McBride's frequent interjections and leading commentary, she expounds for hours on end, might not necessarily exist at all. For some reason I can't help but feel that Elizabeth and McBride have found their way to healing not by reflecting on the past so much as by joining forces in the creation of a mutually acceptable narrative.

The Other Side of You is a novel I could spend thousands of words unpacking. Vickers's quietly lucid style can be deceptive, leading a careless reader to flit amongst the surface of her melodic prose rather than engaging with the sheer depth of material that is somehow worked in to each sentence. Vickers cleverly manages to distil into her work layer upon layer of thoughtful allusion and metaphor, allowing the careful reader to happen upon everything from Freudian narratives to Jungian icons; Renaissance art to Biblical verses; the poetry of TS Eliot and the incisive social commentary of Jane Austen. Perhaps my only quibble with this novel is McBride's voice, which seems at times uneven, particularly at the point of the detached soliloquy he offers up to his wife when he finds out about her extra-marital liaisons. But this, too, could perhaps be seen as McBride's own effort to seek understanding through narrative, the power of which he has only recently discovered.

Much like the Caravaggio so painstakingly discussed and described, The Other Side of You is enriched not only by Vickers's wonderfully erudite nature and her own personal narrative history (Vickers is a Jungian psychotherapist by profession), but also by the rest of her body of work, which famously dwells on issues of death, art, and love. While readers unfamiliar with Vickers's other work will revel in the richness of this novel and the way it is carefully woven into the hermeneutic tapestry of' the arts, those who have read her other work will find that Vickers's novels form a tapestry of their own, and with their overlapping themes and motifs, can almost be taken together as an exquisite epic narrative.

Rating: star Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickersstar Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickersstar Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickersstar Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickershalfstar Review: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

Purchase The Other Side of You.

See also our review of Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers.

Other books by Salley Vickers:

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