The Wreaking of the title is a creepy derelict psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of a south east coastal town where severely ill Jasper Scriven scrapes an existence. His somewhat estranged daughter Cleo works as a news editor massaging away the terror of the news before it is presented to the public, but is unable to eradicate her own demons. Watching her from a distance is Roland, a giant of a man who skulks around in a shadowy criminal underworld leaving the occasional gift for Cleo with whom he is obsessed. As these three characters revolve around each other and Wreaking, they remain conscious of a mysterious event in their past that continues to bind and define them.
Wreaking is Scudamore’s third novel (The Amnesia Clinic Winner of the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award and Heliopolis which was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize). Told from the points of view of Jasper, Cleo and Roland, Wreaking weaves a glorious tale of memory and madness and the shadows we leave behind on the premises we inhabit. This is a challenging and beautifully crafted story. All the characters are impressive, but for this reviewer the main character is Wreaking itself. Abandoned by the NHS years before the ghosts of its patients still haunt the corridors and the whole place has a Marie Celeste feel to it:
‘He [Jasper] has become addicted to the chatter of the past down the corridors. Corridors that once smelt of bleach and floor polish and gave prim squeaks under the footsteps of bustling nurses. Corridors with a hundred years’ worth of linoleum scratches – all the marks of trolleys and wheelchairs and walking sticks and struggling boots, refusing to go quietly. Corridors where (he imagines, ghoulishly disregarding the facts) the light dipped as they administered doses of ECT. Corridors where consequences were addressed – sometimes even for the better.’
The key to this story is summed up by Jasper: ‘The best way to survive is to wrap a version of the world around yourself that you can live with.’ That in essence is what each of these characters does and it’s for the reader to dig up the truth. Scudamore doesn’t make that easy. The narrative jumps around in time without so much as a date to guide us. The clue is in the change of tense which is so subtle it’s often hard to catch, but that’s what makes this such a good book: the reader has to do his or her own work and as we uncover the truth amidst Wreaking’s ruins we become as invested in the story as the characters, unravelling its secrets at the same time (or so it feels) as them. This is the work of a writer totally at ease with, and confident in, his powers.
Roland isn’t on first glance a particularly sympathetic character. He eats everything: ‘bodily material is chewed up and swallowed wherever possible, be it picked from his nose, bitten from his nails or scratched from his scalp… If he could snatch back the breath he has left hanging in the air… he would.’ This isn’t the portrait of a character one usually warms to and yet Roland is more than this. Although often on the edge of life, Roland’s presence, as a friend to Cleo in the past and as a potential ‘creepy voyeur’ in the present, illuminates the past allowing the characters to step into their futures.
Wreaking also works as an elegant study of madness, making the reader question the meaning of insanity. Roland’s out of kilter mother, a former Wreaking psychiatric nurse, Mona and ‘Carol, a manic depressive in her forties who has been in and out of Wreaking since she was nineteen’ have switched names and roles in the Care Home Mona once ran leaving the line between sanity and insanity blurred as the community fails to notice the difference. Jasper is afflicted by physical diseases but underlying his actions and the whole of their joint pasts is a sense of his mental instability, undefined but present nonetheless. Cleo’s late mother’s mental state is a crucial factor in the line of events, but we are left with only Jasper’s memories of her in making our judgment on her state of mind. Cleo watches aeroplanes as they make their way across the sky, knowing that in doing so she keeps them safe and in a similar way Roland watches Cleo to keep her from harm. Perhaps we are all mad to some degree seems to be the message.
Any Cop?: This is a wonderfully assured novel with scope and ambition and with enough of a mystery at its heart to keep the reader hooked till the end. Beautiful and gripping, the truth of what happened to bind these characters together is almost as as ephemeral as the ghosts that wander the corridors of Wreaking.