Review published on October 21, 2017.
This story is set in 1947, just months before the NHS was established and, in alternating chapters, follows two main characters, ex-soldier David Reece and senior psychiatrist Daniel Carter. At the start of the war David was employed as a messenger boy at the Manchester Guardian, with aspirations of becoming a journalist. However, in 1941, aged eighteen, he was called up and posted to Burma in 1942, finally returning home when demobilised in 1946. However, increasingly haunted by his experiences during the war, he finds it hard to settle back into civilian life and, following a violent fight with a young man in a pub, is admitted to Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital. Daniel is responsible for treating David but is fighting professional battles as well as personal demons. The story follows them as they attempt to find ways to reconcile their past experiences and to move forward in a fast-changing world.
Using a combination of fact and fiction, Sheila Llewellyn has written a very powerful story about the effects on military personnel of their wartime experiences, the sense of dislocation they so often feel when they return to civilian life. She also explores the struggles and conflicts faced by the professionals responsible for treating them. Her own experiences of working with people suffering from post-traumatic stress ensures that all of the experiences and feelings attributed to her characters feel absolutely credible and convincing. During the immediate post-war period this condition was little understood and there was disagreement as to the most effective treatment for it. The use of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) was widespread but the use of leucotomy (also known as lobotomy) was becoming more frequent as a form of treatment. This had been developed in the 1930s, based on the belief that the frontal lobes of the brain regulated tension and anxiety and that if the white matter tracts were cut through and removed, this would sever the links with other brain structures, thus removing or, at the very least weakening, abnormal levels of anxiety and depression. Having witnessed such a procedure carried out, with only a local anaesthetic, on a 50-year-old woman suffering from “melancholia”, David is still haunted by the look in the woman’s eyes as she was operated on. As a result he too is suffering from his own post-traumatic stress experiences. He abhors the brutality and barbarism of what is an unproven technique and one which he regards as a violent assault on patients. His approach to treatment is a much more psychotherapeutic one, using talking, group and art therapy to encourage patients to face and understand their demons, and then to find a way to manage them and to move forward.
Sheila Llewellyn’s writing is so powerful and disturbing that there were times throughout the book when I felt that I was being taken on David’s journey through his terrifying experiences. Random experiences in the present allowed memories to flood in, to take over in ways which made him feel totally powerless, unable to either understand their significance or to control them. Images of the past flitted across his eyes, disturbing and horrifying, not least because he has no way of defusing them. The author’s descriptions evoke the insidious nature of a condition which can strike at totally random moments, catapulting sufferers back to violent and disturbing experiences. Many of my own experiences working as a psychotherapeutic counsellor were reflected in the professional conflicts Daniel faced, as well as his struggles with self-awareness when working with his patients, so this added another layer to my appreciation of this story.
I liked the fact that there were so many parallels between Daniel and David, with each of them struggling with issues surrounding absent fathers and a search for paternal love. David tried to resolve this by seeking father figures, whilst Daniel compensated by becoming one to his patients. They each struggled with feelings of shame and guilt about things they had done, as well as things they had not done. Each of them wanted to be a “good” person, but each of them knew that they had done things which had diminished their humanity and wondered whether they would ever be able to compensate for those actions. The fact that each of them was engaged in a battle with inner demons and was on a painful journey of self-discovery added an extra dimension to this remarkable and memorable book.
In addition to its being a very thought-provoking and disturbing but satisfying personal read, I think it is an ideal book for reading groups because of all the issues it raises in relation to what society expects of its service personnel, the effects of war and conflict on them and the ongoing support they may need when they suffer as a result of these experiences. The recognition and treatment of PTSD and attitudes to mental health in general have, thankfully, moved on since the 1940s. However, there are still people who are not being offered the support they need and deserve and anything which highlights this is to be applauded. A remarkable debut novel.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn
Sceptre 9781473663077 hbk Jan 2018
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