I was on holiday last week and so finally got round to setting some time aside for reading. I've had something of a 'reader's block' over the past year or so. Since I started writing seriously, I've found it very difficult to concentrate on other people's work, however fantastic it is. In fact it has been so bad that up until last week, Murakami's 1Q84 is the only thing I have finished in the past 12 months. But I have known Heidi James for some years now, as a friend and an inspirational teacher, as well as a writer I admire. So I wanted very much to make sure I was in the right frame of mind for reading Wounding, her first full length novel, published by the same wise and innovative folk at Bluemoose publishing who bought us Pig Iron - coincidentally the last thing I read before 1Q84.
I was glad I gave myself time and space, for Wounding is not an easy book. That is not a criticism - a distaste for writers who over simplify plot and character, or make things all too neat and simple is one of the reasons I've found reading new work so difficult recently. Wounding doesn't make things neat or simple. It treats you like a grown up. Cora, one of the two narrators, though undoubtedly the central character, invites you to experience her deepest, most intimate fears and insecurities. Her husband - I think I am right in saying he is never referred to by name, only as an adjunct to Cora, in a neat twist on convention - similarly shares his anxieties, about Cora's increasing distance from him, their failure to communicate, and the different values they espouse.
At its heart it is a desolate delayering of a disintegrating relationship. Neither Cora nor her husband have the ability to tell each other what they really feel or need from one another. I don't think this is about a lack of courage though. I think that - particularly for Cora - it just feels pointless. If she could articulate her isolation, there would be a risk that it could be rationalised, or worse that someone could attempt a 'cure' - through medicine or perhaps worse through counselling or therapy.
Instead she seeks out her own method for coping. Shutting out her husband, and becoming less and less tolerant of her children, Cora is always aware of the judgments that people will make or her because of this but unable or unwilling to arrest her own decline, instead seeking out her own retribution on herself for the 'transgressions' she has made. Wounding is dedicated to mothers, and reads - to this man at least - as a powerful and emotionally intense exploration of the impact of motherhood. Heidi is brilliant on the affects of the physical changes - in Cora's body, in her health and tiredness and even in her availability to work - and in turn their effect on her mental health and wellbeing.
But Wounding doesn't over analyse. The pain of Cora's husband is in his desperate attempts to rationalise things breaking down - whether that is the place of his former lover, Lucy, or his devoted relationship to his own parents. He just can't understand how Cora sees the world so reaches out for things that he does understand as justifications.
Cora herself is un-placeable. Although we see her own parents - briefly - and witness a childhood incident that other writers might have over-milked - these aren't used as excuses or explanations for how Cora is. It is as if she doesn't want to need to defend or explain herself. And this makes it all the more powerful as narrative, despite what was for me a real sadness at its heart.
Wounding won't be for everyone. As I said, it is not easy. But as a portrait of the break down of relationship and family, and more importantly as an assertion of the independence of a woman it is a powerful, important and captivating read.