A N Wilson is a tricky writer; one who publicly changes his views and who some regard as deliberately provocative and contrarian. He can be ruthless in his critiques of the works of other authors. Of Richard Adam’s Watership Down he said, ‘I thought it was possibly the worst thing I had ever read.’ and of Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman, ‘a hopeless mishmash of a book.‘
He has not escaped harsh criticism himself. From favourable comments on his biography of Queen Victoria, ‘Subtle, thoughtful…a shimmering and rather wonderful biography,’ his biography of Hitler was criticised for ‘ factual inaccuracies, lack of original research and analysis as well as personal biases’, and his biography of Darwin met with a storm of negative criticism: ‘fatally flawed, mischievous, and ultimately misleading,‘ ‘(Wilson) would fail GSE biology catastrophically.’ His book about Iris Murdoch, which he claims he wrote as a corrective after being enraged by seeing the film based on her husband’s books and defining her in terms of dementia, The Guardian describes as ‘prurient’ in the detail of Murdoch’s sex life. I will always remember the gruesome detail of the filth in which they lived. Not what one would describe as a friendly book.
He has in fact written fifty-nine books at my last count: three children’s books, twenty-four novels and thirty-two non-fiction books. You will be relieved to know that his last book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, (which we reviewed last November) has received glowing reviews, even in The Guardian, ‘There could be no more fitting tribute to the miraculous murderous potency of Dickens’s art’. Dickens means a great deal to Wilson. Only by reading these novels was he able to survive the lonely years in boarding school in what he describes as a ‘concentration camp run by sexual perverts.’
But it is with an early novel by A N Wilson I concern myself here. Before he launched into the world of biography, he wrote quite a few novels, now mostly labelled as ‘comic fiction’. He began with novels based on his own life; a boy leaving harsh years in boarding school, a young man trying to become an Anglican priest, a man losing his faith.
He began writing novels in 1977 and by the time he published The Healing Art in 1980 he had published three books about a young man’s struggle to find a career in organized religion. The Healing Art is miles away from that subject matter.
Let me say I think this is a stunning book. The writer’s insight into the lives of women is amazing and I am very pleased to say he won three awards for this novel: the Somerset Maugham Award, The Southern Arts Literature Prize and the Arts Council National Award. But you’ve never heard of it, have you?
Let me tell you a little about the characters and events of the story in the hope that you will seek it out and read it for yourself.
Two women are in the day room of a hospital. Both have just had surgery for breast cancer and are at their six-week check-up. They are now waiting for their results, the prognosis for their future from the surgeon, Mr Tulloch. Dorothy Higgs and Pamela Cowper have formed a kind of bond from going through the surgery at the same time and sharing a room. Now one will have good news and the other devastating news.
The writing and the characters are completely engaging, the events utterly surprising. The demure Pamela, the academic, has her own names for the people in her life; her friend the Anglican minister is Sourpuss, here is a little description to whet your appetite
His eyes were almost permanently screwed up behind horn-rimmed spectacles which could never decide on which part of his nose to settle. His, perhaps, was the last Anglican generation of lace and biretta men, touchy bigoted figures whose hard affected tones proclaimed the mysteries with such radiance and which concealed an ocean of kindness so effectively that almost no one would have guessed it was there.
He also rides a bicycle, and has a rather overly thrifty sister called Fredegonde, with whom he lives.
Dorothy Higgs is called Dol, by her impatient husband George. It wasn’t for Vi next door she would be in a bit of a pickle.
A great deal happens in this slim (250p) book. Characters travel, have accidents, become estranged from their dear ones, fall in and out of love.
Aside from all the amusing and diverting plot lines I think Wilson makes a very strong point about our helplessness in the hands of the medical profession and how mistakes can be taken all too lightly. Some through arrogance, some through lack of will.
A wonderful read that deserves to be better known.