I have enjoyed this warmly told story about a struggling psychologist’s journey towards his own healing through taking on the case of a ‘selective mute’ migrant. Each of the two main characters, Dr Mike Lewis and ‘Johnny Two’ have problems of fear and denial reactions to traumatic events, and we follow their parallel journeys towards understanding and discovering possible emotional healing and a future. Written in the first person, we are privy to the therapist’s emotional state and memories from within, while we observe his client from without, but with positive compassion.
At the same time, I found the author’s depiction of a busy psychology department, peopled with a selection of therapists, clients, and administrative staff, and their attempts to coordinate with other disciplines, insightful. We are presented here with a picture of the everyday working world of welfare, as the characters try to coordinate and co-operate with social workers, immigration officials, and foster carers. We realise how female dominated is the world of caring professions, except at the top level where such people as hospital consultants and immigration officers remain more usually male.
The plot weaves through many situations common to such a workplace. The main character, Mike Lewis, has a trainee to observe and to find suitable clients for her stage in training. Several cameo characters, such as the small girl in the park, and the young man with learning difficulties, both of whom live with foster carers for different reasons, appear in the narrative, giving us glimpses of the wider world of social and welfare work. A thread which begins early in the book, to almost disappear and then resurface near the end, is the problem of clients with severe mental disturbance. Someone is stalking Lewis’s trainee, and has not given up even though measures have been taken to protect her. He pounces upon another character when we least expect, and nearly scuppers a happy ending.
The process of investigating the truth behind the young migrant’s mutism I found especially interesting, and the gradual realisations and eventual revelation of the traumatic experiences leading to his stowing away on a ship bound for Britain forms a particularly gripping two scenes. I personally felt less involved with the circumstances surrounding Mike Lewis’s life, and became a bit impatient with him, though there is careful handling of what could have been problematic relationship with a woman at work. The complication of close relationships with a work colleague is well known, and well written here. Less interesting to me was the degree of description of the miserable flat where he lives, estranged from his wife. I got bored with how often his beard is mentioned, as are the kebabs he buys for his evening meal, and began to wonder at the degree of repetitive detail. And also why a woman writing her first novel had chosen the difficulty of writing in first person and male gender. However, in such a female dominated world, and with the migrant being a young teenage boy, presumably he might not have been assigned to a female psychologist?
That aside, my only really critical thought is that the book could have done with a good continuity editor. This would have smoothed out signs that this is indeed a first novel, (published after the second two), and also the presence of some small anachronisms. Although published in 2017, we have messages left on answer phones, whereas most people would've been texting by this time. And somehow there was a generalized feel of society being in 2007 rather than 2017.
Nonetheless, a great story for readers who are interested in social welfare or enjoy a good alternative mystery to one based on solving a crime, with a conclusion which is satisfactorily hopeful.