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Vermont, Maine and South of Broad!

I recently bought Chris Bohjalian’s novel, “The Double Bind (Vintage Contemporaries),” published in 2007, because I really liked the two other books of his I had read, “Midwives,” and “Skeleton at the Feast.” “The Double Bind” ostensibly refers to an outdated theory about the ‘cause’ of schizophrenia that was popular when I was a clinical student back in the early 1980s. Gregory Bateson postulated that children who were consistently put into a ‘double bind’ by being given contradictory messages by their parents – such as being told by their parent that they loved them whilst simultaneously being pushed away or abused – resulted in the child retreating to an unreal world as a coping mechanism. Schizophrenia is a theme in this unusual book, set in Vermont, but there is very little one can reveal about the plot without giving away too much. The re-use of “The Great Gatsby” characters and shenanigans provides intrigue. In retrospect – but not while actually reading it -- I can say that the plot was masterful. For most of the book I found it difficult to get engaged, but persisted, more because of my previous experience of Bohjalian’s writing than because of any urgency to see what would happen next. Rather a double bind; I knew his books were good but I was somewhat bored with this one! But this novel is worth reading for the surprise ending alone, and if you are interested in psychiatric disorders, your persistence will be rewarded. Perhaps if I had known the ending before I began the book I would have found it much more interesting, yet by knowing the ending in advance, the power the story had, in the end, to up-turn preconceptions and stereotypes would have been immeasurably weakened. Another double bind!

Off Season,” by Anne Rivers Siddons was another book I recently read. I am drawn to southern American writers such as Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons, whose evocative descriptions of place, and gentle exploration of relationships with all their complexities, add up to a very pleasant way to spend a few hours. In “Off Season” the setting is not the Low Country but Maine, another part of the USA I gravitate towards when choosing books for pure enjoyment. It follows the much-used and much loved theme of a bereaved widow’s return to her past, especially her adolescence -- a time marked by a tragic young death --and her consequent re-evaluation of her life and marriage. Lilly, the very likable widow, is remarkably positive and upbeat given the recent death of her great love (or was he?) and this makes for a refreshing alternative view of the grieving process.

In contrast to “Off Season,” a book that sits squarely within “Women’s fiction,” Pat Conroy’s most recent book, “South of Broad,” is clearly a book that would be enjoyed equally by men and women. As the first novel Conroy had written for too many years, I bought the hardback as soon as it came out (in 2009) and began reading it within hours of its arrival in my letterbox. It is a book to be savoured and re-read, as I have just done; a book that you can immerse yourself in and feel sad when it ends because you fear it will be a long time before another Pat Conroy novel is published. Like “Off Season” it is about a life – Leo’s life -- with considerable time spent on that painful period called adolescence -- and the waves emanating from the suicide of his 10-year-old brother. Conroy is a master at writing about the values of friendship, and this story revolves around Leo’s relationships with a close circle of friends, all with their own rich and of course complex histories. On the surface the two books have much in common. But in “South of Broad” Leo is but one of a kaleidoscope of wonderful characters, and Conroy’s beautiful writing manages to stay ‘southern’ while avoiding the occasional lapse into cloyingness that is a hallmark of the writing style of Rivers Siddons. “South of Broad” is a book I will return to, while “Off Season” is, like most books, an enjoyable but not especially memorable read.
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