A psychiatrist’s guilt

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Novelists pose themselves problems when they choose a main character of the opposite sex to their own, and in “The Other Side of You” Salley Vickers may not have surmounted them had she not concentrated so much on the intellect rather than social life of Davey McBride, the psychiatrist at the center of her tale. He specializes in suicidal patients, explaining, “The denizens of that hinterland where life and death are sister and brother, the suicidally disposed … beckoned. Like is drawn to like.”

This implies that he has suicidal thoughts, but in fact the death that haunts him is that of his 6-year-old brother Jonny, who stepped in front of a truck so little Davey could cross the road safely. He has never recovered from the guilt. Aware that his mother blames him as he blames himself, he’s always known to the day how long it’s been since Jonny died.

His settled sadness has found some consolation in the patients he has helped, but left him with a private life anchored by his mentor, Gus Galen, rather than Olivia, his frivolous and frankly not-very-nice wife. He certainly no longer loves her, and probably never did. Thus both his work and his emotional condition leave him time for thinking. He is a reader — Jane Austen and Henry James are in his hands as he narrates the events of the novel — and he takes an informed interest in paintings. Art, he believes, is created by people who have not the gift for living.

This is one of the frequent obiter dicta that salt Ms. Vickers’ novel, sometimes excessively so, but McBride is nothing if not a seeker after truth, an explainer, an analyst. In the first chapters of the novel, the habit of explaining results in an occasionally irritating tick-tock pattern of description followed by exegesis. While this provides necessary information, such as details of psychiatric practice and theory, information about past patients and episodes from McBride’s life, it also slows down the narrative, so that at times “The Other Side of You” moves at the maddening pace of a car doing 40 on the expressway.

This failure to put the foot on the pedal suggests that McBride is stuck in the tar of his own past. It also suggests that whatever he will reveal of anyone else’s life, this account will be at least as much about himself. And so it proves.

His latest patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, has taken such a large overdose of sleeping pills that there can be no doubt that she seriously wants to kill herself. But why? At first, she is not very forthcoming, but eventually she describes falling in love with a man called Thomas who was the perfect person for her, as she was for him.

They are separated by a freak event, and she eventually marries someone else. Then chance brings them together again. By now she has a child and is prevailed on — perhaps preyed on is the more accurate expression — by her mother-in-law, and also by her own sense of what’s right, to delay leaving her family. This proves disastrous. Her suicide attempt comes from remorse and repentance as much as from hopelessness about her future.

As she tells her story to McBride, he realizes that what she tells him of Thomas’ radical attitudes to life and love are immensely consoling because they are true. And Elizabeth too has a kind of purity in her response to life that brings his own muddling into view for what it really is. A seven-hour session of talk precipitates him into the clear air of self-knowledge and therefore of acceptance. Jonny, who has been a constant presence in his life, now leaves him.

And, of course, many other new things happen to him too.

Of these things, the most important are the new understandings that occur during his long conversation with Elizabeth. These understandings lead to actions that would not have been possible otherwise, but of the actions the most important are the emotional leaps that take him to another and better part of his consciousness and that enable him to live a different life.

Action in this novel takes place in the mind, so readers need to have their own minds fully engaged. Ms. Vickers raises a number of complex issues, perhaps most significantly about the way the human mind can call into reality what it needs as explanation — a notion explored through Hassid, a Pakistani student of physics; through the paintings of Caravaggio, on whom Thomas was an expert; and through St Luke’s story of the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus, a subject that Caravaggio tackled more than once.

As her earlier books have demonstrated, Ms. Vickers can juggle multiple ideas deftly. Her learning is multifaceted: She herself has been a practicing psychologist as well as a professor of English, and her characterization of Davey McBride and his work is nourished by these disciplines. Her considerable knowledge of Italian Renaissance art revealed in her first novel, “Miss Garnet’s Angel,” comes into play again in her use of Caravaggio’s work as one of the touchstones in this new novel.

She knows her Bible too, and moves easily from its stories to everyday life, and more significantly to the discussion of the way the mind sorts and analyses emotional and social experience. Most significantly, spiritual teaching underlies the stories of Davey and Elizabeth, who, like most people, have mistrusted love.

The droll wit that infused Ms. Vickers’ earlier work is not much evident in this novel, but her lucid and often beautiful prose and her generous, though sometimes melancholy, sense of life leaves the reader feeling both challenged and refreshed by new thoughts. This is not a massive volume, but its canvas is large and full of the rich detail that suggests that it might compel return visits — as do the Caravaggio paintings that emblematize the full response that is almost invariably lacking from most lives.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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