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Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

This morning I read an article about a rape case, despite videotaped evidence, being dismissed based on an argument that boiled down to the victims being in no state of mind to consent, and therefore being incapable of not'consenting. Such pronouncements are a reminder that womens perceived sanity or validity of mind is so often something decided by men. The article bore chilling parallels with Wendy Wallaces debut'The Painted Bridge, set in an asylum for women in Victorian-era England.

'Its little wonder that the term asylum has given way to other names, as its certainly a misnomer, and no more so than the Lake House institution described in the book. Theres something so utterly chilling about this rambling mansion, so utterly removed from the unfettered clamour of Bedlam, that makes it seem as though incarceration here could be worse than anywhere else. Its the juxtaposition of the pleasant, genteel life suggested by the fanciful grounds and elegant building with the horrors that go on within: madness, after all, in these times was linked with moral depravity, and the more popular cures seemed to involve violent exorcisms via blood letting, leeching, and purging. Indeed, the horrors wrought upon the residents within the institution are so perverse that one cant help wonder whether its owners and employees arent well on the path to sociopathic insanity themselves. But Lake House is a private institution clinging on in a context of nationalised psychological care, and it must justifyand pay forits continued existence.

These contrasts and more are explored when Anna Palmer arrives at Lake House, enrolled there due to her husbands claims that she is mentally unstable, claims that appear to stem from the fact that Anna has a fierce independent and philanthropist streak that does not fit with her husbands idea of what being a pastors wife should entail. The book follows Annas attempts to prove her sanity and rationality and her desperate need to escape Lake House and the oppressive, patriarchal shackles that it represents, in doing so exploring notions of sanity itself, and the application of entirely different social norms to females and malesnot to mention the ease with which these can be applied by a dominant gender. Theres also the arbitrariness of judging what is sane and insane, a point that is underscored in numerous and chilling ways, perhaps most movingly when'one of the Lake House researchers finds that a diagnostic approach he has long been convinced of is not only influenced by the patient, but also by the diagnostician. If one comes to the diagnostic table with prejudices and certain less than above-board motivations, then how is it possible for the outcome be one thats impartial and accurate?

The Painted Bridge'is not an easy book to read, and I suspect that its one that readers will appreciate more than they enjoy. Wallaces writing is elegant and subtle, requiring the reader to work with a series of hints and allusions in order to pull together the wider picture of what is going on, and the way in which she examines the many facets of sanity and insanity against the lenses of class, gender and family is darkly fascinating. The daughter of the owner of Lake House, for example, though exhibiting symptoms far more questionable than Annas, simply cannot'be insane purely because its not allowable given her position. A woman who has fallen in love with a man of non-white descent is clearly morally corrupt, and is sent to the asylum as a form of excommunication. Annas treatment, too, is an extended form of punishment by a husband who wishes to keep her in her place, and its results create an outward appearance of madness to those around her, thus perpetuating the assumptions that had committed in the first place.

Though I did find that the book flagged towards the end, and that certain plot elements, such as Annas flight to freedom with the asylum owners daughter, felt a little contrived, The Painted Bridge'certainly offers food for thought regarding both sanity and the continued careful subjugation of women at the hands of their male counterpartsand there is a good deal here that does, worryingly, resonate our experiences today.


Before leaving, Lucas stopped by the book of questions in the entrance hall. On the page where a year earlier he had posed a question Can photographs be effective in diagnosing disorders of the mind? 'he wrote his own answer, in a neat italic hand.

Fallces sunt rerum speciaes.'The appearances of things are deceptive.


Rating: star Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallacestar Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallacestar Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallacehalfstar Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallaceblankstar Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace (very good)

With thanks to Simon and Schuster Australia for the review copy

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Other books by Wendy Wallace:

daughter of dust wendy wallace Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy WallaceOranges and Lemons by Wendy Wallace Book Review: The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

The book trailer for The Painted Bridge

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  1. A very thoughtful review, Stephanie. I agree with you, the idea of insanity and sanity really becomes a blur in this story. It was hard to connect with the story at times, but it certainly was thought-provoking.

    Didnt it just make you sick what treatments used to be used not all that long ago?!

    The mental health system certainly isnt perfect now, but at least patients have rights and the legislation about scheduling people to inpatient facilities are a lot clearer cut than they were back then.


  2. p.s- just watched the trailer what a great depiction! I can see it being a movie

  3. Stephanie /

    Its astonishing what used to pass as medicine and therapy, and Im so glad that weve moved towards evidence-based practices! Things have certainly improved immensely since those days, but given the current debate about the mental health care system I suppose this book is a timely reminder about how things can very easily go awry, and the butterfly effect that can easily result. The nationalisation of healthcare in the novel, for example, was the impetus for the increased stringency of the Lake House careit had to prove its worth by going above and beyond. Unfortunately the results werent exactly humane

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