The Virgin & the Whale by Carl Nixon (Vintage 2013)
Nixon’s third novel interweaves three narrative strands. The first is the narrator/author commenting on the mechanics of storytelling, the second concentrates on Elizabeth - a nurse who has returned to New Zealand from the War (WW1) with a child in tow but minus her husband who is missing presumed dead. Elizabeth is employed by Mrs Blackwell, a member of one of the ‘first’ families to settle in Mansfield (aka Christchurch), to look after her husband who has returned from the front without his memory. The final narrative strand is the story that Elizabeth tells her son Jack to explain the absence of his father. While the action unfolds between Elizabeth and the Blackwells, the novel is also about the power of storytelling.
Nixon explains at the beginning of the novel that he has been given the story of Elizabeth from a member of the public. Although Nixon was initially sceptical about taking on the story, he does, and the novel is the final result. Nixon notes that it took some time to find a suitable narrative voice and structure for the book which I think has resulted in Nixon showing explicitly the problems with how to present a story as a strand of the novel. Readers will either find this approach either endearing or annoying. As a dabbling writer and literary student I could see the technique as a post-modern but all the while thinking, yeah I know that the construction of story is artificial, that not all historical facts are available, and that the author is choosing what to include and what to leave out in order to persuade readers to continue the narrative (bear in mind though that I am currently researching a historical novel and the issues that Nixon has faced I am also facing). While it is interesting to see the thought process of a writer it did make me wonder if the novel could have worked as a creative non-fiction piece where the known facts of the family could be presented along with Nixon’s motivation and perspective on writing a family story, and the ethical and moral obligations this creates for the writer.
The only draw-back from the inclusion of the self-conscious reflection on the nature of storytelling is that I felt the two strong female characters were under developed. I never really felt like I got inside Elizabeth’s head. Sure, I knew that her husband was presumed dead, and that she had the care of her child with the help of her parents, and was now nursing a man with no memory, and while I could imagine what she was going through, I felt her character development skimmed across the surface. I wanted more. I felt the same about Mrs Blackwell who is a strong woman, perhaps more through class than gumption, but I wanted more access to her thoughts. The fact that I wanted more could be attributed to Nixon’s skill at characterisation however I feel he could have expanded the characters to give them more depth.
About half-way through the book mental health services are consulted about Mr Blackwell’s care. The psychiatrist says, “Medication is the main weapon in the modern psychiatrist’s arsenal. We would have to experiment but I am confident that the new barbiturates will keep your husband’s mood swings in check” (143). From my own research on the history of mental health services, specifically at Seacliff Mental Hospital (which was just outside of Dunedin) from the 1920s until the mid-1940s I’m left wondering about the historical accuracy of the doctor’s statement. The post war periods were very important for changing the medical fraternity’s attitude to mental health. As increasing numbers of people suffered from shell shock, and recovered from it, mental illness went from being perceived as incurable to being potentially curable. The treatments available though were limited, such as: therapeutic conversation which included suggestions and persuasion for self-cure, hypnosis, seclusion and restraints, plus psycho-analysis and psychathenics for the more difficult patients. While calomel salts and paraldehyde (which is a barbiturate) were used at Seacliff for sedation at night, medication only became popular treatments for mental illness from the late 1940s to 1950s in New Zealand. There were experiments with malarial serums, insulin coma therapy and cardiazol shock treatment before ECT and drugs came along. I’m basing my information on Susan Fennell’s essay “Psychiatry in New Zealand 1912-1948” and my understanding is that there were no effective drugs to be prescribed that could treat patients in the period that Nixon is writing about. While my research has been based on Seacliff, Nixon is writing about Sunnyside where different experiments may have taken place and where different doctors may have had different attitudes to drugs than those at Seacliff. Truby King, who was the Medical Superintendent at Seacliff from 1889-1920, was suspicious of drugs and Freud but from my research I don’t believe in 1920 that “Medication is the main weapon in the modern psychiatrist’s arsenal,” experimentation maybe, but no drugs were available to treat psychiatric patients. Of course, the statement by the doctor in Nixon’s novel also reflects the (misplaced) confidence of the psychiatrist at Sunnyside, and how willing doctors of the period were to experiment on patients.
While I have had a few misgivings about the novel, I did find Elizabeth an interesting woman and the development of her relationship with Mr Blackwell is fascinating to watch, I just would have liked more of it. In some ways the narrative reminded me of the new Australian TV series A Place to Call Home in its premise (rich family and a new nurse on the scene), so if you enjoy that show I would give the book a try (Nixon’s book is certainly more imaginative than the TV show). I do see the quandary for Nixon in telling this story – emphasis on the love story would make it too soppy, whereas the literary emphasis can alienate it from some audiences – in the end he has tried to do both which may please neither.