Review: Wreaking, By Kames Scudamore

Enough to put you off eating eggs

"If you go to Nabokov's house," Martin Amis has said, "you get his best chair, in front of his fire, with his best wine. If you go to James Joyce's house, he offers you two slabs of peat around a conger eel, and a glass of mead." Among the stomach-churning fare on offer in James Scudamore's third novel, a boiled-egg sandwich is accompanied by congealed turkey, five fried eggs are drizzled with tabasco sauce, and an omelette is concocted from the pigeons' "unrealised futures" that splat from a filthy roof. One protagonist even chews eggshell, but the tense atmosphere at Wreaking, the derelict south coast psychiatric hospital which provides the novel's title and most of its setting, consistently leaves characters feeling scrambled.

The narrative alternates between 20 years ago, when the unhinged teacher Jasper Scriven acquired Wreaking with the intention of opening a school there, to the present as he approaches death in squalor and solitude. Scriven's estranged daughter, Cleo, works as a television producer in London where she's secretly watched by Roland, a disaffected underworld enforcer. At first, Cleo appears to be in danger but it turns out that Roland has carried a torch for her since the pair played and boozed in Wreaking's gardens as teenagers. Roland's "self-effacement verging on self-erasure" is a subtle triumph.

Wreaking's tangled hedgerows and dust-cloaked corridors contain mysteries. What happened to Cleo's mother? Why did Cleo ask Social Services to remove her from Scriven's care? What led Roland to embark on a violent career? Revelations arrive in heady final chapters, as characters return to Wreaking to confront the past, but the ideas that Scudamore explores along the way generate deeper interest. "It's not the past you mourn … so much as the future," Roland says, and time does its "nasty work". An adolescent's rant about the "little deaths" that menial jobs inflict is echoed when a former-patient recalls being admitted to Wreaking for a week of recuperation, only to endure years of isolation and electric shock therapy. The question of what constitutes madness, the unfortunate chain of circumstances which can separate those who end up in an institution from the rest of society, is intelligently explored.

Scudamore's last novel, Heliopolis, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and praised for its exemplary prose. In Wreaking, imagery is bold, grotesque, bawdy. Scriven's prose is "too clear" when he tries to write Wreaking's history and Scudamore's attempts to subvert conventional criteria for good writing also achieve mixed results: dialogue is clunky, even if it's deliberately expositional, but jarring descriptions of rooms with "melancholy in their DNA" match the hospital's unruliness. There's limited aesthetic pleasure for the reader to savour, but Wreaking is memorable enough to put you off eating eggs for quite a while.