Understanding and madness in a German asylum

July 17, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff



By Clare Dudman. Viking, 352 pages.

The British novelist Clare Dudman knows that every reader is a de facto psychiatrist, piecing together a theory of character and coherent narrative from elusive and contradictory information.

In her quietly compelling second book, 98 Reasons for Being, Dudman positions us firmly in the healer's chair by structuring the book as a group of seemingly unrelated fragments set in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1852.

There are the unvoiced thoughts of Hannah Meyer, a 19-year-old Jewish girl admitted to the local asylum when she becomes catatonic for no immediately discernible reason.

There are the "real-world" happenings inside and outside the asylum, as described by the hospital's staff members and 97 other patients. (This explains Dudman's title.)

There are excerpts from Struwwelpeter (or Shock-Headed Peter) the macabre book of cautionary children's fables written by Heinrich Hoffman, a real-life physician and author who, in Dudman's book, treats the fictitious Hannah.

And finally, there are a slew of invented 19th-century historic documents, ranging from a description of the notorious Judengasse (a ghetto for the city's Jewish residents), to the era's prevailing theories on treating insane people, to progress reports for schoolchildren.

From those disparate fragments, stories begin to form. Contrary to my expectations, it was not the tale of Hannah's seduction and betrayal that I found most engaging, but the portrait of the sad Hoffman and his unhappy marriage to an aspiring socialite and their hellion of an oldest son.

It is the less conventional narrative. It conforms less neatly with the reader's expectations, forged by all the similar stories we have read in the past. Mysteries that can't be resolved linger in the reader's thoughts, prodding with sharp little claws.

Dudman has a background as a research scientist and a passion for documentation; this is a novel with a three-page bibliography. As in her first book, One Day the Ice Will Reveal Its Dead, she seems most interested in revealing the careful, painstaking life of a scientist, its monumental blunders and accidental triumphs.

But she has a poet's eye for beauty and a gift for physical description. Here is Hannah's first view of Hoffman:

"Whiskers. An otter's head. His mouth opens, and a small red tongue moves within. Clouds and more clouds. I watch them surge briefly from his mouth and disappear."

At times, Dudman's meticulous research seems a bit undigested. Poor Hannah is subjected to every well-meaning, unwittingly cruel medical treatment of the day: blood-letting, icy baths, blistering, the application of leeches to her genitals, even a primitive version of electroshock therapy.

The author also works too hard to connect the often gruesome vignettes from Hoffman's book (in which, for instance, a child playing with matches goes up in flames) to events in the novel.

But 98 Reasons for Being has its own stubborn weight and mass. Dudman is self-confident enough to take her time. Page by page, the novel accumulates. Despite its flaws, it is not easily forgotten.

Mary Carole McCauley writes about the arts for The Sun.

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