Sunday, 25 January 2009

A Review: Sister Morphine

I finished reading Sister Morphine a while ago and have been putting off writing about it because I wanted to let my thoughts sink in, work out why I was troubled by this 'novel' by Salt writer Catherine Eisner.

I love most Salt Books. I love the design, the ethos of this very exciting publisher, and the quality of writing. There is something ground-breaking about a UK publisher focusing on short story and poetry, and producing such quality and quantity of books from writers around the globe.

Sister Morphine was sent to me as part of my membership of The Story Bank, one of their book groups that has an annual fee for the benefit of getting four luxury first edition hardback books delivered to your door, a free copy of David Gaffney's brilliant Sawn Off Tales, 30% off all orders, and other special offers. A wonderful bargain for any short fiction lover.

So when this wonderful door-stop of a book arrived some months ago, I was very excited. Here was Salt's first ever novel, waiting for me to read, and not only that but Sister Morphine tackles 'themes of suicidality, sibling murder, child abuse, morbid self-harm, guilt, jealousy, incest, drug addiction, infidelity, illegitimacy, obsessive compulsion, bereavement and a case of grand larceny in the second degree' and is premised as 'Women's Narratives from the Case Notes of a Community Psychiatric Nurse'. This is entirely my cup of tea, especially as I am both a writer and a social worker. The idea of a book with narratives/case studies is exactly what I want to read.

And I guess the reasons for my curiousity being so excited have contributed to why this book has so troubled me. I had certain expectations. Partly through the way the book is described and partly because of my own experience of mental ill health/the mental health system as a professional and personally. It meant that I was already coming to the book with my own ideas, and this is usually not a good thing.

Firstly, I was troubled by Sister Morphine as a novel. As I started to read it, I fetl strongly this was not a novel, but a series of short stories connected by the fact that the characters take prescription drugs for mental health reasons. The idea behind the premise is brilliant. But, it felt to me that the 'narrator' or the 'character' of the Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) wasn't strong enough for this to be considered as a novel and in fact was decidedly 'absent from a lot of the narrative. We were reminded of her from time to time, but she wasn't a central character. We didn't have much insight into her as a person until the final story. The narratives were sometimes first person, sometimes third, and usually from the point of view of the patient. And hardly ever did we meet the CPN in these narratives, she didn't seem important, and for me as a reader, the central character of a novel must be important to me, I need to understand her.

The CPN was 'present' in the 'Assessment Summaries' attached to the beginning of each story, which give information about a patient's symptoms, diagnosis, presentation and medication. These were interesting and felt authentic. But they set up expectations for each story, which I felt as a reader weren't always delivered on. As I was reading Sister Morphine I started to wish that the 'Assessment Summaries' would get put back in the confidential files of the patients where I couldn't read them. The connections between the assessments and the stories were not always clear, and they felt like an 'add on', sometimes distracted me from the stories that I was reading.

There are many other discussions that could be had about what makes a 'novel'. In the end, I decided that perhaps this was marketed as a novel for industry reasons, because collections of short stories, connected or otherwise, are not as popular or easy to market as novels.

Secondly, another thing that troubled me was the women in these narratives are not women I can easily identify with. There was something emotionally distant about them, as though the characters or writer was not fully engaged in their emotional experience. These women, who even though they are bank tellers and primary school teachers, have aspirations or backgrounds of a different class: attending public school, coming from “highborn matrilineage” or character who have Aunts who can lend them a house complete with servants in St John’s Wood. And because of this 'distance', I didn’t feel the stories dealt with mental health issues in a grounded way, such as in Janet Frame’s beautiful short fiction in The Lagoon or Padrika Tarrant’s disturbing and insightful Broken Things (you can read my review and interview with Padrika on Bookmunch). Both these writers create stories which I felt were about women who are just like me, could be me, could be any of us given certain circumstances that might create fractures in our mental health. In Sister Morphine I was reading about 'other women'.

So, in reading this book, I had to try and strip away the problems I was having with how it is described on the cover, the notion of 'what is a novel', my own expectations, and the fact that medication and mental ill-health is not integral to every story. Once I got over the fact that this is not a novel, I found that there are many stories in Sister Morphine that deserve to stand alone. I found some brilliant story-telling. Catherine Eisner (if this is her real name) is a writer who writes as though an expert in the genre of short story. She approached most stories in an indepth biographical way, and (once I got over that these women are from a different background to me) I found characters I was fascinated and entertained by.

These stories are often funny, very detailed, and well-written. Perhaps not as emotional as I would have liked. In Cousin Ludwig’s Subtraction Game for instance, I found a great story, cleverly written. We are given a complex family history and the dynamics of the family are very effectively explored. There is some beautiful detail and description, and the notion of paternal love being calculated using a complex system of subtraction was well executed. But I wanted to feel more of the emotion, and I wasn't sure whether this was my difficulty as a reader or a difficulty in the story.

Catherine Eisner either has some indepth knowledge or diligently researches aspects of her stories, such as army life, choreography, euthanasia, poetry, drugs (illegal and presciption), and shamans/voodoo. She uses some interesting, experimental devices within her narratives, that sometimes I loved, as in the diary in 'A Stranger in Blood', and sometimes found inaccessible, as in the diagrams and theories in 'The Eleven Surviving Works of L. v K. (1902 - 1939)'.

I think 'Honeymoon Without Maps' was one of the most accomplished stories, and such a wonderful title. The violence from the characters husband is written on a stave as Benesh notation, something which I needed explaining. Once I understood that the narrator is understanding their physical fight in the only way she can, as dance choreography, I was drawn into this story beautifully. There are some touching moments, like the small sign that her husband is living with her friend and she says nothing about it. This story twists in unexpected ways and has various stories within the story, rather like the way memory works.

'Dispossession' is another wonderful story, set on a farm, exploring the relationship between a brother and a sister. This story captured the family intensity that seems to be at the heart of most mental distress in my experience. There is some beautiful description, it’s clever, well-researched, and imaginative. It requires concentration, her story-telling does not run on a straight trajectory, and involves complicated plots. But it has the best start to a story in the whole book,and I felt did capture the emotions that some other stories lacked.

In, truth, as I write about Sister Morphine with some distance since I read it, reading through my notes, I am brought to wonder whether sometimes there is just something to be said for personal taste. I had many problems with this book, that other readers might see as qualities. I certainly wouldn't say it is a bad book. I finished reading it. I was interested, and put in the effort as a reader (which I wouldn't have done for a lesser book). But sadly, for me the problems I had with it outweighed the positives.

In 'Honeymoon Without Maps', the narrator says “I daydream for hours and pictures from my past just fall into my mind like projector slides in a carousel… and often out of sequence”> I felt as though the stories in this 'collection' inhabit this space as well. There are some wonderful pictures from characters' pasts. But, in my mind it is more like a carousel, and not a novel.


Megan said...

I read this with a lot of interest Annie. I've interviewed Catherine Eisner about 'Sister Morphine' for Salt's Cyclone blog tour - should be posted soon

Michelle said...

Sister Morphine has been on my list for a couple of months, Annie.

annie clarkson said...

Oh I look forward to your interview, and Michelle, please read it and let me know what you thought..