War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen

Carol Birch relishes a grimly funny tale of wartime trauma, but questions the psychology that drives it

Saturday 21 December 2013 05:18
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War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury, £15.99, 227pp)

We can explain the characters of Shakespeare in modern psychological terms, but how much would Hamlet be diminished by the addition of some neat speech summing up, say, the Oedipus complex for us? The best storytellers allow the intricacies of motivation and memory to wind their way inextricably through the fabric of a work without having to spell everything out. Ambiguity is vital. Since therapy entered mass consciousness and its terms passed into everyday language, too many writers have been spoiling good books with too liberal a dash of pat pop psychology, treating their characters as case histories.

Gloria, in Liz Jensen's readable and enjoyable new novel, is a fine example of repressed trauma and unresolved guilt brought to light by the ultimately healing efforts of regressive hypnotism. Gloria is in an old people's home, her memory "a sieve". When not telling jokes or giving hand-jobs to randy old Ed in the next wheelchair, she is haunted by a drowned child and assailed by jumbled memories of the war years, when she was courted and left pregnant by a handsome GI.

The tedium of life in the home is periodically disturbed by visits from Gloria's son, Hank, who is certain his mother remembers more about the past than she lets on. With increasing desperation, he tries to winkle out the truth about his origins.

One day he turns up with a mysterious woman called Jill, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Gloria's hated, long-dead sister, Marje. The arrival of Dr Kaplan, the hypnotherapist, heralds the spilling of a can of very unpleasant worms. Confession, forgiveness and redemption can follow.

There is a pattern at work here. A particular theory of the human condition is being mooted, according to which the repression of dreadful memories is unequivocally a bad thing. It doesn't give too much away if I reveal that Gloria's wartime traumas, the action they precipitated and her subsequent guilt, have all been "wiped" from her memory by an experimental process practised by a stage hypnotist-turned-doctor just after the war. The shell-shocked veterans treated by this method "went in mad and came out happy, then a week or two later they were screaming again". Even the one success story, the man who stayed sane for years, ended up going mad and affirming that the doctor had "made his life hell".

Everything is explained. Gloria's crime is the result of unbearable pressures, themselves largely due to the great fact of the war. People did things then, sometimes evil things, we are told, because they might be dead tomorrow. Gloria's home front is no comforting world of plucky sing-songs in communal shelters: it is one of trauma upon trauma.

Meticulously researched and vividly detailed, the mundane events are scattered with sudden flashes of horror, as when a girl in the factory where Gloria works "lost a quarter of herself" due to a bomb. The modern sensibility gazes in awe at the past and wonders how on earth anyone ever got through it.

Of course, people did and not all emerged hopelessly scarred. But in our counselling-obsessed age, damage is assumed, every action is explicable, and no one is ultimately to blame for anything.

For all her feistiness, Gloria remains a case history rather than a real character: a finely wrought fictional illustration of psychological cause-and-effect. War Crimes for the Home is still a sparkily written, colourful piece of writing. It just isn't as deep as it thinks it is.

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