There probably isn’t a more terrifying prospect for a great many people than that of being trapped in your own body, unable to communicate in any way with the outside world, unable to tell your doctors, your families, your friends that your consciousness is well and truly intact and that you can hear their every word. This is where journalist Alex has found himself following a devastating fall during a routine climbing expedition, and two years on from the accident the doctors see no evidence of improvement in his condition. He routinely takes notes of his doctors’ rounds, his visitors’ bickering, his nurses’ different attitudes towards him while he tries to remember how and why he, an experienced and careful climber, fell on a familiar trek.
Among his visitors is Bea, his long term girlfriend with whom he’d had a fight, a silly argument the day of the accident. She is devoted to him, to reading to him, chatting to him, reminiscing with him. But it’s been such a long time, with so little, evidently, to hope for, that he in his heightened state of awareness can sense that she longs for a life outside of the hospital room almost as much as he does. His father and sister are also regular visitors, who make his medical decisions for him. Because of a past tragedy they are sure that Alex wouldn’t want drastic life-saving intervention, that he wouldn’t want to live as he is living, but are nevertheless holding out for a sign that he’s still there.
The entire story is told from Alex’s perspective. We get an insight into his life before the fall by his frequent forays into his memories. He was a journalist, he covered court reports and had a love/hate relationship with his copy editor. He had met Bea when they were both in Canada for the summer before university, working as counsellors in an activity camp for kids. His relationship with his sister was strained following the death of their mother, and his respect for their mother’s decisions regarding her own treatment. He had been a keen climber, with an attractive female climbing partner. These droplets of information from his past and his observations from his bed endeavour to shine light on his present.
We experience, through Alex, his every-day routine. His favourite nurse attends to him with compassion, treats him humanely and allows him dignity. His least favourite nurse calls him “donkey”, is rough with his intubation and washing, but is nice as pie when his relatives and friends are in the vicinity. He can feel every scratch at the back of his throat, the discomfort as his body rolls slightly if someone sits on his bed, the irritation of a fly landing on his skin. His eyes open and close beyond his control so he’s gotten used to using his hearing and his sense of smell to identify people.
Through snippets of conversation between his visitors and the staff Alex gets wind that a criminal case involving his accident has opened. He can’t remember what happened. He knows he and Bea had argued. He thinks his climbing partner had led the climb. He’s aware that a witness has come forward to report some new information. It’s an interesting perspective, and a novel way to tell a story, but the momentum just can’t be contained.
As the tightly woven, page-turning mystery novel it’s marketed as it isn’t great. That aspect of the plot doesn’t get going until well into the narrative, the motive for the attack isn’t quite believable enough and the payoff is unsatisfactory. As a stirringly imagined insight into a locked-in condition however, it’s very thought provoking. In between trying to figure out who on earth would want to kill him Alex thinks back over the pivotal points of his life that have shaped his path, and the past decisions and actions undertaken that will ultimately decide his fate. It could even be suggesting that fate has no bearing over our lives whatsoever, that it is but our capacity for free will that will inform how our lives will unfurl.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on February 14th 2018