First of all, a disclaimer. Isabelle Grey and I knew each other at university. We lost touch after that, and only made contact again last November, after 35 years, when Isabelle left a message on this very blog to say hello (which is, of course, one of the joys – and secret purposes – of having a blog). She’d read Little Monsters and told me that she’d also written a novel which, as she said in her comment, ‘deals with very similar ideas – how to escape past damage, how not to go on repeating destructive behaviour.’ Which piqued both my curiosity and my vanity.
It would be hard to fault the author’s own description of her novel. Out of Sight is relentless in its examination of damage and the havoc it wreaks. At the start of the novel, Patrick/Patrice Hinde, the central figure (I hesitate to use the word ‘hero’), is a happily-married practising homoeopath , with a wife, Belinda, a musician whose playing allows him to ‘relax his guard’, and one small child, a son called Daniel. Gradually, as we learn about Patrick’s background, a childhood of isolation and emotional deprivation divided between boarding school and his harsh and unyielding grandmother in France, it soon becomes clear to what extent this happiness is hard-won and, potentially, fragile. A visit from his English father, a retired multinational executive, and French mother, a woman devoured by irrational anxiety, throws the inadequacies of his own past into relief, with disastrous consequences.
The opening scene, in which Patrick talks to one of his patients, provides a rapid overview of one of the novel’s central themes:
‘It’s about past emotional trauma, do you remember? […] An inherited predisposition. It may be in your life, or your family, or even your distant ancestors, something that leaves a residue which has a negative impact on the vital force.’
In the case of the novel, the predisposition for trauma may be in Patrick’s past, and in that of more than one generation of his family, as we discover towards the end of the story, but what triggers it, and provides the impetus for the novel, is something Patrick himself does. It’s an act that’s both utterly comprehensible and inexplicable, and I’m not going to say what that act is here, because one of the many pleasures of the novel is its extremely skilful building of narrative, and emotional, tension. What the book is concerned with, principally, is the devastating effect a certain kind of forgetfulness, in one specific instance and in a larger, more lasting and wilful way, can have on an individual, whose propensity for guilt and self-blame is already highly developed. One of the tenets of homoeopathy is that, however much the original substance is diluted, something of it survives – that water has a memory of what it might have once contained – and there’s a determination to Patrick’s forgetfulness that transforms it into a sort of deeper homoeopathic memory of what’s been forgotten, a memory that won’t be cancelled. If nothing else – Patrick’s self-administered remedies certainly seem to have little medical validity – the novel confirms homoeopathy’s metaphorical value.
I should admit here that my own views on homoeopathy are in line with those of Patrick’s father, sceptical to the point of hostility. This may be part of the reason I feel it’s hard to find much to like in Patrick. He’s sanctimonious, priggish, hypocritical (He still felt guilty that he drove here every day from Brighton – he who counselled his patients to live natural, organic and carbon-neutral lives), and although it’s clear that he’s attractive to women, it’s hard not to see this as as more than a sign that some women like men who are slim, prepare a mean risotto and are sufficiently troubled to represent a challenge; brutally, he’s the kind of man who seems to need looking after.
In the second part of the novel, which forms its core, Leonie, refugee from a failed affair in London and working in the tourist business in provincial France, meets and falls in love with Patrice, as he’s now known, for the reasons I mention above. It’s an odd courtship and Leonie’s willingness to put up with some fairly unpredictable behaviour is convincingly – and often sensuously -described. But Patrice’s refusal to forgive himself, his essentially self-centred stubbornness, looks set to stymie Leonie’s hopes. The final section of the novel, set once again in the UK, brings the story to an unexpected but satisfying close and, once again, I’ll leave you to find out what that is by reading the novel yourself. I found it gripping and frustrating at the same time, a sure sign that the book is doing something unexpected, and doing it well. If I have a criticism, it’s that the writing sometimes feels a little over-determined, as though the author doesn’t quite trust her readers to read between the lines. I wondered as I read whether Isabelle’s considerable experience as a successful writer of television drama, in which dialogue obviously takes precedence, might not have left her with an unfulfilled urge to fill in some of the gaps between the talk, to tell as well as show. For a novel in which silence plays such a fundamental and disingenuous role, it’s a temptation that must have been hard to resist.