Saturday, August 2, 2008

Art and Life

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers is the story of a psychological journey. The main portion of the novel is an extended session between psychologist David McBride and his suicidal patient Elizabeth Cruikshank. David, the narrator of the story, feels especially able to deal with the “suicidally disposed” because of an incident in his own childhood in which his beloved older brother was killed before his eyes in a traffic accident when he was five years old. He has a sort of survivor's guilt that makes him sensitive to those who choose to end their lives. But his early attempts to reach his uncommunicative patient are unsuccessful. Finally, her brief reference to Caravaggio draws him to view the painting The Supper at Emmaus in London and when he describes his reaction to her, Elizabeth opens up and begins to expose her other self.

Elizabeth's story of what led her to suicide forms the main portion of the book, and I don't want to give away too much of it. But her first words concerning her tragedy - “I was faithless” - are profoundly important. It's not just that she was unfaithful, but that she lacked the faith to embrace the love she was offered. As David gently questions her, he also begins to realize that his own life mirrors Elizabeth's. The trauma in his past has caused him to close himself off, to remain in a marriage with the self absorbed wife. When Elizabeth asks him “"Why do you do this? Is it love or damage?" he answers, "Possibly both."

Vickers invokes the image of the Caravaggio paintings frequently as the story progresses. If you've read St. Luke lately you'll remember that it tells the story of two of Jesus's followers traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion, mourning the death of their leader. They are joined by a mysterious stranger, and when he breaks bread with them at supper he reveals himself as the risen Christ and then disappears. David and Elizabeth are also travelers, and each helps the other to the revelation of the “other side” of themselves.

The title for Vickers's novel comes,from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland ("Who is the third who walks always beside you? . . . Who is that on the other side of you?"). Although some may find the language somewhat stilted at times, I thought it was beautifully poetic in capturing the human emotions of loss, regret and redemption.

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