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THE HOUSE ON THE CLIFF
by Charlotte Williams
Bourbon Street/HarperCollins, January 2014
352 pages
$14.99
ISBN: 0062284576


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jessica Mayhew, a psychotherapist, becomes involved in not altogether a professional way with a family of Welsh theatre personalities who have a dark secret.

Jessica Mayhew is a psychotherapist who has, she tells us, been in practice in Wales for twenty years. She is married, mother of two daughters, and, as the story opens, furious at her husband who has just confessed to having a one-night stand with a translator at a convention he was attending. Jessica wishes, she says, to preserve her marriage, but she cannot forgive her husband; indeed she can barely speak to him. Nor is she getting along with her elder daughter who is sixteen and dreams of a singing career.

Her personal circumstances must be what accounts for the rather extraordinary way she behaves when Gwydion Morgan, the twenty-five-year-old son of a well-known Welsh theatre director walks into her office seeking help with his button phobia - he is frightened of them, he says, and as he is about to take on a role in a costume drama, he needs to be able to change clothes without suffering a panic attack. Although Jessica makes every effort to sustain a professional demeanour, she is instantly attracted to her new client, who is some twenty years her junior. She attributes the sudden rush of heat rising from her chest to "countertransference," but it does appear to have a more primal source. Either than or, given that she is in her mid-forties, it may be an early sign of incipient menopause. Whatever the reason, she experiences these flashes with some frequency when in the company of attractive men, even one whom she thinks might possibly be a murderer.

In her next sessions with Gwydion, she learns that buttons are not his only problem. He is plagued by a recurring dream in which he is trapped in a box and cannot escape. His condition rapidly deteriorates and Jessica is drawn further and further into his family story in ways that certainly violate usual professional standards.

While the book starts off well enough - Charlotte Williams can write effectively when she chooses too - one rapidly loses patience with the first person narration of Jessica Mayhew. She has a flourishing therapy practice, but seems to have no sense either of her own limitations or of the seriousness of the situation she is messing around with. She wanders into potentially lethal circumstances for no really good reason. Nor can she deal with either her husband or her daughter in any but the least intelligent of ways. Basically, she wants to hit them, though luckily she has sufficient restraint not to do it.

Presumably Williams did not intend this novel as a warning to readers to avoid seeking help with their mental problems, though the thought of getting landed with a Dr Mayhew might give anyone pause. On the contrary, she appears to have meant to reveal that psychotherapists are human beings with their own problems who are prone to imagining that they are wiser than they are. While true enough, it is hardly a startling insight and Jessica Mayhew, even after she has that lesson brought home to her in unavoidable and painful detail, seems not to have learned quite enough from her experience for us to trust her with a new set of clients.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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