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The Other Side of You

December 26, 2014

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers, The Other Side of You, 2006

“Most people make themselves up,” says Thomas, one of the characters in The Other Side of You. “They wrap themselves up with a lot of tinsel and flummery: precepts and morals and habits and fibs and shams and other pathetic dishonesties. … few have the capacity to withstand the temptation to become someone altogether unlike themselves.”

As we wrap ourselves up, we bury the person we might have been – our other side. We veer away with what we could be, and justify our evasions by reference to decency or safety. This novel is about two people who had buried their “other side” – Elizabeth, a woman who makes a serious suicide attempt and is only saved by the remotest chance, and David, her therapist when she is admitted to hospital. Both Elizabeth and David have suffered terrible losses. For both of them the therapy sessions lead to the resurrection of their “other sides”.

Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus

Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, National Gallery, London

“Resurrection” is the right word. The book’s title and epigraph are from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, referring to Luke’s story of Jesus, after the crucifixion, appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At first they do not recognise him, but when they share supper on their arrival and he breaks bread, he is revealed to them.

We may or may not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but the rebirths of Elizabeth and David are utterly convincing. At first the therapy goes nowhere. Like the disciples, neither patient nor therapist recognise their “other side”. The turning point comes when David, knowing Elizabeth likes Caravaggio, speaks of his reaction to the artist’s painting of the supper at Emmaus. As the narrative proceeds, Vickers adds successive layers of complexity to her characters.

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, The Louvre

Art plays a major role. Elizabeth’s lover Thomas, who says that most people make themselves up, goes on to say that artists don’t do that. “Or rather, if they do, they make sure to unwrap themselves when they work. The greater the artist the less wrapped up they come. … a real artist knows the other side of himself better than the side he’s in at the time.”

One of the joys of this book is pausing to bring up the paintings the characters look at or discuss, and contemplating the interplay between the art and their lives. These connections are more implied than explained, so the reader does the work of interweaving the paintings with the themes of the novel.

In Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin the disciples gather around the dead Mary, crushed with grief. Mary Magdalene sits beside the bed “folded over almost in two with the weight of her despair.” We see how this represents the agony that Elizabeth feels. On the book’s cover is a modern woman in the same position.

The Other Side of You is a novel of many layers. It is a meditation on love, revealing the essence that underlies its many manifestations and showing how it enables us to know our other side. It is a study of how people live with the terrible consequences of wrong choices. The book challenges us to examine our lives, to unwrap ourselves. And it is a riveting story of a psychotherapy session in which two people, by truly engaging, make their own journey to Emmaus and finally recognise their true selves.

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