The Girl on the Landing

The Girl on the Landing - Paul Torday

The Girl on the Landing - Paul Torday

Paul Torday is the writer of quirky novels, at least the first two, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, were.

Reading The Girl on The Landing I felt I was reading something along the lines of Lord Peter Wimsey or Bertie Wooster, Chrome Yellow by Aldous Huxley or one of the novels by Evelyn Waugh

We have the same characters as in The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, mixing in the same social circles.

Our hero goes to stay at a country house in Ireland with his chums from his club for a spot of golf, though it just as likely could have been a spot of hunting and fishing. On his way down to dinner, his attention is caught by a girl in a painting, the girl on the landing. When he looks in the light of day, there is no girl there. There is something strange about our hero Michael Gascoigne, as his wife Elizabeth is about to discover.

My initial reaction, or at least on first reading, was one of disappointment compared with the first two novels.

When I first read The Girl on the Landing, I did not get into it and as such I did not enjoy it as much as the previous two novels by Paul Torday. That was a couple of years ago. Re-reading it two years later I am finding myself really enjoying The Girl on the Landing.

So what has changed? Well first I have already read it. Second I have a close friend who is schizophrenic.

The characters are pretty much what you find in The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (Paul Torday’s second novel), mixing in the same social circles. Bores who belong to their club in Mayfair, who go hunting and fishing and shooting and when not killing God’s creatures play golf. The same characters one would find in a Bertie Wooster novel, only there they are amusing, here they are frightful bores.

When Michael Gascoigne tries to engage in intelligent conversation at the dinner table, it definitely is not on old chap.

His wife Elizabeth is a bore. I had to double check her age. It starts with her in her early twenties, then after ten years marriage to Michael, who she describes as boring, must now be in her early thirties, but one would think she was in late middle age. Though she does improve and become less boring and more interesting as a character.

I am reminded of Agatha Christie crime novels. When you have read a few you realise they are all peopled by the same characters, they may have different names, but they are the same underlying characters. I do not know if they still exist, books with a different character on each page, only the pages were cut such that you could have the head of one, body of a another, legs of another. From The Irresistible Force of Wilberforce to The Girl on the Landing, we have the same composite characters. The boring wife is a character in the first three novels.

Michael suffers from schizophrenia, though we do not learn this until later. He takes a fictitious drug Serendipozan, an antipsychotic. It may be a fictitious drug, but the side effects described are not.

Michael is in a fog. Who is Michael, who is the real character? Is he merely acting out a character?

Serendipozan may be fictitious, the effects attributed to Serendipozan are not. A low dose is as efficacious as a high dose, but too often doctors prescribe high or megadoses of antipsychotics. A higher dosage may be no more efficacious, but the side effects are worse the higher the dosage.

Too often antipsychotics are handed out on repeat prescription. Talking to a friend, a psychiatric nurse in a private psychiatric hospital, he said there should be monitoring, the level of the drug varied according the condition of the patient.

Schizophrenics on antipsychotics talk of going from a world where everything is a dull monochrome to one of colour, where everything is sharper and brighter when they come off their drugs.

Risks, side effects, include weight gain, loss of sexual appetite, dullness, inability to function or concentrate, memory loss, premature death.

The world of the schizophrenic is one of paranoia, of hearing voices. A world of multiple personalities, some warm and loving, others nasty and unpleasant who delight in causing pain to those who love them. They think those who care for them are trying to control or manipulate them. At times charming and sociable, but tire very easily, then withdraw into themselves. Can be very amusing and charming and intelligent, then just as easily change into someone else.

Who is Michael? Who is the real Michael? Dull, but dependable, or someone else? He changes, his facial features change, hatred blazes in his eyes, it as though possessed or taken over by someone else. What we thought was Michael, is that a persona he adopts to suit the occasion, like an actor adopting a role in a play?

Do we know who we are?

The husband Michael is the way he is because he is on a powerful antipsychotic drug and has been for years. Maybe the boring first half of the novel is a clever trick to represent the zombie like nature of our chemically zapped hero. Society demands that were are all ‘normal’, aberrant behaviour is dealt with through electro-convulsive shock therapy, lobotomy, and more recently powerful mind-bending drugs. As he is growing up, our hero talks with spirit people he meets in the woods. Definitely not ‘normal’ behaviour.

Why do we have a problem with people who have mental problems? If they are wealthy enough they are ‘eccentric’, otherwise they are social pariahs. We would not treat someone who had lost a leg or an eye or some other physical affliction this way. Maybe a case of but for the grace of God go I.

Some people see the world differently. If they can articulate their world view and convince those around them, they are hailed as a genius, the next Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. Others like Galileo are tortured by the Church and forced to recant. Witches are burnt at the stake.

Once we locked away those who were different in institutions with windows at the bars. Now we incarcerate them in chemical prisons. Or we just let them wander the streets and call it Care in the Community. Those who occupy our prisons, who sleep rough on the streets, too often are people with mental problems who Society has abandoned.

What though do we do with those who are dangerous, who if we do not lock them away will go out and kill?

The Girl on the Landing starts off very dull and boring. It is like wading through treacle, the reader is lulled into a stupor and does not notice the dark Gothic horror that is slowly, slowly creeping up and catches you unawares.

At least that was my thoughts on my first reading. On my second reading I did not find The Girl on the Landing dull and boring, though yes, that is true of the characters apart from Michael. The depiction of Michael is a very accurate portrayal of someone who is schizophrenic. But even the other characters, boring as they are, reflects the coming to terms with someone who suffers from schizophrenia, as you find you are not dealing with one, but many different personalities. The feeling of helplessness, of not knowing what to do.

The Girl on the Landing, a chilling portrayal of schizophrenia. The autostrada, which had been travelling through Mediterranean landscapes of cypress trees and vineyards, plunged back into the blackness of the tunnels.

For my lovely friend Sian.

Also see

Interview with Paul Torday

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

The Alchemist Himself

A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais

Veronika Decides to Die

Brida

The Witch of Portobello

The Interpretation of Murder

Understanding schizophrenia

Making sense of antipsychotics

Homeless at Christmas

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