Brick Mother: a brick-walled building which, impervious, unthinking, oblivious, offers continuity and concrete stability, protecting its occupants from fear of breakdown.
I really liked the irony of the title of S.J. Bradley’s debut novel. Cedar psychiatric unit in Heathley is anything but secure; it is underfunded and understaffed leaving mile-wide opportunities for human error. As a mental health professional, I knew I was going to enjoy this. So much of the prose is dedicated to the mundane details of the everyday – the flaking paint, the damp in the portacabin, the same-old-same-old activity in the day room – and it’s beguiling; it pulls the reader into the heavy atmosphere on the ward; the weighty foot steps and the challenges faced by those caring for the vulnerable – it’s a bloody taxing job. The story focuses on two characters; Neriste, an art therapist, and Donna, an assistant nurse. Neriste is exhausted and over worked while Donna is isolated and emotionally lost. Both are drawn to a patient, Nathan Rivers, a manipulative sociopath who seemingly demonstrates empathy; and one of them will break a professional boundary with shocking consequences. Brick Mother is essentially a thriller.
Themes of stasis and desire for escape underpin the experience of those under Cedar’s roof. It’s a sluggish existence pock-marked with medication, chain-smoking, kicking a deflated football around a yard; and the staff are frustrated and fed up – Angelina, the nurse manager, bullies like a harpy, ramming her fixed opinions down everyone’s throats. Outside, Neriste puts up with a pointless relationship, and Donna drags her heels through the daily grind – struggling to spend time with her son, the grass grown to shoulder height in her back yard – the sum of her life the bus ride between work and her home on the local estate.
S.J. Bradley cleverly balances the mood of slow decay with hope. Barney is the hospital’s bumbling social worker who spends his time sketching in his notebook during ward round. His opinions aren’t taken seriously yet he is the antidote to the general malaise; his positive work with psychotic patient, Andy, is the ballast to the unfolding drama with Nathan. One of my favourite scenes heralds at a turning point in Neriste’s life when she spends a morning at a crafting group; the down to earth humour of the women knitting animals and sewing patches on a quilt grounds and solidifies in contrast with the airy bubble of being on the ward.
Brick Mother is a great observation on the diminished state of the mental health system. It is a story about the importance of personal boundaries, the ramifications of trusting the wrong person, and sometimes listening to your head instead of your heart. Buy it here.