The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace is a novel that neatly fits into a type of book I am addicted to – ‘Spunky Victorian Girl in Trouble’. The trouble in this case is that Anna Palmer’s husband has – against her knowledge and consent – installed her in a private asylum because he believes she is ‘hysterical’.
Confused and angry, Anna is determined to prove her sanity, but with her husband and doctors unwilling to listen, her freedom will notbe easily won. As the weeks pass, she finds other allies: a visiting physician who believes the new medium of photography may reveal the state of a patient’s mind; a longtime patient named Talitha Batt, who seems, to Anna’s surprise, to be as sane as she is; and the proprietor’s bookish daughter, who also yearns to escape.
Yet the longer Anna remains at Lake House, the more she realizes that—like the ethereal bridge over the asylum’s lake—nothing and no one is quite as it appears. Not her fellow patients, her husband, her family—not even herself. Locked alone in her room, driven by the treatments of the time into the recesses of her own mind, she may discover the answers and the freedom she seeks . . . or how thin the line between madness and sanity truly is.
This is another of those books that I just ate. Pretty much everything in it was to my tastes – from the examination of the Hypocrisy of 19th century attitudes, to the female-centric plot, to the discussions on madness and sanity and how normal behaviour can be defined as madness by people in power. Anna is a powerful, intelligent woman, and I liked her. I don’t need to like a main character to enjoy reading their story, but it is always pleasant when I do. Interestingly, all the characters (even the villains) were treated with sympathy and kindness, with reasons for their actions. All too often books of this type can go a bit black and white on the nature of good and evil for my tastes.
The sense of time and space is well captured, and from the first page the prose manages to weave a sense of utter desperation, which is an impressive feat for such a slow moving book. However, the writing does sometimes creep into melodrama and self-parody which is somewhat tiring and unnecessary. I am unusual among many reviewers in that I prefer overwriting to underwriting, but they are still both to be avoided. However, this is Wendy Wallace’s first book, and a little over-indulgence isn’t a deal-breaker for me.
As I said further up the page, this is a slow moving book. If you like a lot of action, this is not for you – it’s quiet, subtle. It builds slowly to the ending (which manages to be both natural and a surprise) yet satisfies completely.
I am very impressed, and will be looking for future books by Wallace.
- Where Heinous Crimes Are Heard: The Old Bailey (londonhistorians.wordpress.com)