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Fur and all: A review of The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James

By Thea Hawlin.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter

Heidi James, The Mesmerist’s Daughter (Neon Books, 2015)

I read The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James in one sitting. Admittedly, the novella stands at a mere 32 pages but the speed at which I read it is a testament, nonetheless, to the power of this short but intense tale. James opens with a simple yet surprising statement: “My mother was a wolf.” Sentences that revel in such succinct shock are part of James’ trade, as becomes clear when the second follows suit: “That was the first secret I kept for her.” The sinister undercurrents of the novella are evident from this start, yet rather than leaving such forebodings to lie in the dark James brings them into the harsh light of day, splicing the narrative in two, leaping from the narrator’s perspective as a child to a distant future of lab coats and mad houses, doctors and therapy treatments in which the narrator is a grown woman, closeted in a psychiatric facility and recounting these formative moments of her childhood in which she encounters tragedy and her family falls apart.

In these memories, the narrator, Nicola, comes to realise her own place, “ape-like and innocent”, as the sidekick to her mother’s charms and lies, through which she sees the beast underneath – literally, fur and all – and helps apply the mask. Yet what she soon understands is that the most wolfish part of her mother is that which cannot be covered up: her nature. The fur and snout she envisions may be contained by lipstick and a “human costume” but the true nature of the wolf, the deceptive cruelty, remains evident even in the day-time.

Every night her father is away the wolf comes out in a rigid ritual of sacrifice and abuse. An analogue here is the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus: Prometheus, chained to a rock, has his liver pecked out by an eagle only for it to grow back anew the next day for the eagle to eat it once more – a torture to continue day in and day out for the rest of time. A similarly strange set up starts the book: a mother feeding off her child, the child eaten nightly, consumed and devoured by the one who should love her most. In such descriptions James’ poetic leanings (she was a finalist for the Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Prize) are evident, with lines that lift stark details into a rhythmic and rhyming language charged with movement: “nothing left of me just leg, leg, arms and head.” In her mother there remains “no trace of a growl or a howl,” adults are seen “squeezing and kneading at flesh.” The novella is brimming with sentences to be savoured, with language of unexpected and exciting depth – “Wonderful, chunky words, solid and indestructible, dolloped out and shaped with my tongue and teeth like marzipan,” as James’ narrator would say.

This motion runs through The Mesmerist’s Daughter. When Nicola takes a bath the water gargles away, “stealing flakes of me”. A smile becomes fluid, something that invades and covers even when uninvited: “the smile he smeared on my mum’s legs.” The voice of a woman “undulated; it swelled and subsided, moved in circles”; nothing in the book stays still. As well as being notably poetic, James’ prose simultaneously takes on a deliciously cinematic direction; a writer who satisfies both ears and eyes a welcome rarity. With Nicola we zoom in and out to the minutest of moments with a ferocity that stirs:

She smiled when I sat down for breakfast and pushed a bowl of cereal over to me, the cold milk sloshing up over the sides and splashing my hand; a pure white drop paused there, on the knuckle of my index finger and I felt my whole self draw down to that cold white space. “Sleep well?” she asked. I nodded, expanding back into the rest of my body.

With a first line and a premise that promises so much, I’m fully prepared to read some warped child of Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber stories, but the text fails to push this far. I want James to go further; I want the wolf to be made real. I want there to be more tooth, more claw, more savagery, and less cunningly placed metaphor. The image works well; Nicola’s fear of her mother’s lies and her deception manifest themselves in her sexuality, her ‘wolfish’ part, the shadow of hair between her mother’s legs a potent symbol of everything the narrator fears, both in her mother and in herself. But the solution feels somehow too neat, too easy. With the snapshots of her time institutionalised, nearly all respect for the narrator is lost. What begins with utmost and mesmerising sincerity fades into common imagery, a childhood fantasy, when I want to stay on Nicola’s side. I want her to be right – I don’t want her to be the mad one. Ultimately a more intensive justification as to why the image she settles on is one of a wolf is needed – other than the convenience of fairy tale tradition.

What happens in the narrative gap between childhood and adulthood? The questions bubble away. I want to see how this child develops. When does she realise that she too may possess the same wolfish qualities as her mother – the same nagging hunger of sexuality? Such developments and realisations feel warranted in what is a bildungsroman-esque tale. I want to watch Nicola grow as a voice. Instead, she seems to fade, overwhelmed by her childhood encounters, almost forgetting her sense of self in the present. Then again, the novella, limited in size by its nature, warrants such clipped encounters. I may simply be yearning for James to expand The Mesmerist’s Daughter into a fully-fledged novel – I’m still hungry for more.


Thea Hawlin

Thea Hawlin (Ha-V-lin) is a writer, artist and cultural critic. She read English at the University of Cambridge then ran away to Italy. She writes for publications such as AestheticaThe London Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and reading everything by Italo Calvino.

To find out more about Thea and read more of her work visit her website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 14th, 2015.