Through the Dark Glass: S J Bradley’s Brick Mother

brickmotherWelcome to the locked psychiatric ward of the Cedar Hospital Heathley. It’s much like any other secure psyche unit. There’s a guy called Andy who’s just been sectioned at a train station for ranting mad things at the departures board. There’s Ahmet the Middle Eastern refugee who’s okay if you don’t turn on the TV news when he’s in the room. In fact the only person who seems halfway  normal is Nathan Rivers, a former prisoner coming off six years. Nathan is charming, funny, peaceable and causes no trouble for patients or staff. In Brick Mother two very different ward workers are drawn to him.

There’s little that’s romantical about mental distress and S J Bradley shows this well. The scattered vignettes of ward round give small insights into ‘cruel, uncontrollable minds’: people stealing sugar packets, crying hysterically, eking out a crossword into days. Only slightly less desperate are the lives of their guardians. Brick Mother may be one of the best novels written about work. In it Bradley focuses on two members of staff, art therapist Neriste and ward nurse Donna, and through them encapsulates the fulltime grind: antisocial hours, sleeping on the bus, unreliable bank staff, limited resources, mindless bureaucracy, top-down priorities that swing like weathercocks in a gale and managers who are never seen in the building after four. The tone of the narration is like the floaters that live in tired eyes – like the beige and loam of Nathan’s abstracts.

Neriste is a committed and creative soul who is breaking under the weight of the misery she deals with. Donna is a middle aged lone parent with the understandable desire to be young and free again. Both are drawn to Nathan in different ways: while Neriste tries to draw him out through art, and make him accommodate the possibility of change, Donna falls under the lunatic’s spell. As Nathan flirts and plays her, Donna begins to almost transform: she loses weight, her skin looks brighter. (At the novel’s messy conclusion, we see a photograph of Donna: ‘an overweight woman with a doughy face, and unflattering dark hair’ – a subtle allusion that the transformation wasn’t real, or was only real to Donna.’)

At first glance this is pure kitchen sink. The tone is made out of damp, wet clothes, missed appointments, unhappy relationships, lack of money. But this miasma of mediocrity gradually resolves itself, through Bradley’s intricate and unseeable skills, into something absolutely horrifying. Brick Mother is a cautionary tale and a portrait of institutional rhythms, but it is also an examination of how closely we can become involved in other people’s lives. There is a fine difference between people who are high functioning and not, and some of us hide beneath the radar, and there is like a wall of glass between the many many people whose lives have collapsed and the rest of us who can still walk and talk and put on a front: the distinction is fine, evasive and mysterious, but the barrier is transparent and we see through this glass, darkly. The only suffering you can escape, Kafka said, is the act of turning your back on the suffering of the world, but Bradley’s debut demonstrates that the choice is not necessarily irrevocable.


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