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The Delivery Room By Sylvia Brownrigg

The therapist as sheepdog - and human

Sylvia Brownrigg's third novel is a serious work, intelligently written, well constructed and occasionally poetic, whose chief subject is the tension between our public and our private selves. The delivery room in the title is actually the Camden Town study in which Mira, a 60-year-old Serbian and follower of Melanie Klein, practises psychotherapy. In this room, at the front of the apartment Mira and her husband Peter share, the therapist listens acutely to her patients' troubles, commenting or deciding not to comment and reacting to enquiries about her own life with a mannerly "Thank you".

Recalling Auden's poem about Freud, she defines her work as a searching out of the line that will make sense of her patients' anxieties and then allowing the patients to find that line for themselves. She compares her art, variously, to that of a visionary as well as to the sheepdogs they show on television herding their charges into tidy pens. Underwriting her brand of therapy is a sort of puzzle theory wherein the practitioner seeks out the solution to an equation, which when communicated mysteriously back to the patient will bring about change for the best.

Brownrigg is deferential towards her heroine but never romanticises her. She is not an especially warm or compassionate person, yet she is a dedicated professional who gives generously to her patients. A great deal of the therapeutic work takes place inside Mira's mind when she is alone, for that is often when the best connections and solutions occur. There is a certain sharpness in her dealings. In fact, any current analysand might flinch to read of patients being discussed between husband and wife with dismissive nicknames such as The Bigot and The Mourning Madonna.

Mira is adamant that her professional and her home life will always remain separate, but the world around her does not always oblige. When her patients quiz her about her Serbian heritage, when her husband's relationship with the son he only met at seven becomes a focus, and when her husband becomes fatally ill, it is not possible to keep these carefully defined divisions.

Considering its subject, The Delivery Room is curiously unemotional. It suffers from a flatness of tone, partly due to its lack of humour. Many of the characters are suffering acutely but their disappointments are oddly unmoving. This doesn't seem like an error, but rather serves to convey the heroine's belief that the head rather than the heart can best assist the dispossessed.

Brownrigg's characters may be agonising over what relationships are for, but it is high intelligence not sympathy that time and again is shown to be the best salve. This structure is only allowed to unravel at the novel's close, when Mira is almost shocked at the power that a comforting arm, an offer of help or a kind letter has. Her professional life will gain from this realisation, no doubt.

Susie Boyt's novel 'Only Human' is published by Review