A LIFE’S WORK: The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday

Review published on July 1, 2016.

This is a story told from the alternating perspectives of two narrators, Elizabeth and Michael. Even though he was rather dull, Elizabeth was drawn to Michael because of his reliability and predictability, and because he could offer her financial security. She has doubts before the wedding but, as she doesn’t have particularly high expectations of marriage, she suppresses these and, even if vaguely frustrating, their relationship is reasonably companionable and comfortable. However, ten years later, when visiting friends in Ireland, Michael is drawn to a painting on the landing which features a girl in a green dress. At dinner he asks his hosts who she is and is surprised when they say there is no figure in that particular painting; no one else has seen her, and when he re-examines the painting he sees only a shadow. However, from this date Elizabeth notices increasing changes in his behaviour; he becomes more assertive, less predictable, as well as more romantic and demonstrative towards her. She enjoys this “new” Michael and, for the first time, falls in love with him. Intrigued by this change she wonders about its genesis, and her reflections raise what becomes a central theme in the story – how well can we ever really know another person. Michael’s narrative increasingly provides some clues; it reveals his troubled background since childhood, and the fact that his “true personality” had been suppressed by powerful anti-psychotic drugs.

Paul Torday’s third novel is a dark, gripping and powerful psychological thriller which at times is almost Gothic in style. It explores themes about identity, mental illness and about how society copes with people who differ from the norm. It looks at the sometimes devastating effects of some of the drugs used to treat psychoses, and the equally devastating effects when these are suddenly withdrawn. The reader is challenged to wonder what is real and what is delusional – is Michael psychotic, psychic or possessed – some of these questions are reinforced when the author brings Jungian ideas of the existence of a “collective unconscious” to explain some of Michael’s apparently bizarre beliefs.

The characters are very well drawn, and I found that Torday’s spare, but very effective use of language gripped my attention and imagination from the start. Although the themes and many of the storylines are disturbing, this is an engaging book to read – and it does have moments of humour! It is a story which leaves as many questions unanswered as answered, but I felt that this very ambiguity is central to the book’s message, and it certainly stimulates lively discussion!

Linda Hepworth
Personal 4
Group 4

The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday
W&N pbk 2009

ALW89

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