Eight years prior to this novel, Ken Kesey told us the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy through the eyes of the mute native American Chief Bromden in the haunting “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”. Although similar in setting (a psychiatric hospital) this novel is not a “British” version of the American tale, and although sharing a thin theme around authoritative control it looks at the plight of the main protagonist through a number of eyes.
The story opens with Norman Zweck a one time brilliant barrister, the idol of his close-knit Jewish family, confined to his parent’s old bedroom, drug addicted and suffering hallucinations. Rabbi Zweck, his father, and his sister Bella who still lives at home and wears white ankle socks, have no option but to have Norman committed to a psychiatric hospital.
The tale is one seen through the eyes of Rabbi Zweck, Norman, Bella and the estranged sister Esther, with their visions of guilt, blame and worries told for each character. Obviously Norman’s psychotic tale being more self centered than the others (or is it?). Whilst in hospital Norman meets “The Member” another patient who continues to feed Norman’s drug habits and his psychosis.
Norman shrugged helplessly. His mouth was full of vocabulary,yet there seemed no way to distil it in any kind of order. He let his mind wander away from the whole sorry story. He thought of the Minister. He missed him. He must have been discharged when Norman was in his deep sleep. He wished he could contact him again. What point was there in living this so-called sane way of life, when all zest was drained out of him, and all he was left with was a clear recognition of his own torment that hammered at his skull.
This is no ordinary Psychiatric hospital tale, nor a tale of the evils of drugs, but more a slowly revealing story of the family disintegration, their issues, foibles and the events which led to Norman’s downfall. The pages describing Norman’s visioning of silverfish and his overall addiction are so well written it is as though Bernice Ruben’s has been through similar psychotic issues herself. Although, I should have picked the format straight off as the novel opens with the quote:
If patients are disturbed, their families are often very disturbing. R.D. Laing “The Politics of Experience”
This was the third novel from the 1970 shortlist that I have read and I can categorically state that it was head and shoulders above the other two novels, in the award stakes and it rates very highly on my list of favourite Booker novels. It was a pleasure to read, not too daunting, nor filled with Jewish themes, my only criticism being the ending leaves a lot to be desired (an ending I’ll surely forget even if the character of Norman Zweck will stay with me for sometime!!!).