Wounding by Heidi James

What I hope for most from reading is to be forced into new avenues of thought, or even old avenues that feel rusty or could be further excavated. Reading Wounding did exactly that. The novel is about Cora, a woman in her thirties, seemingly with everything: a loving husband, two children (boy and girl), a good job, a house with a garden. But Cora is not happy, she is lost, she has slipped into a world in which the demands of others, specifically of the family, define her. They define her body – the marks that childbirth leaves; the power of instinct to enforce a soothing hand – and they empty her mind: she must do what is expected of her, she must mimic a happiness she does not feel because marriage and children have robbed her of selfhood.

Half of the narrative is in Cora’s husband’s voice. He tells us the story of how they got together and their life as a couple. He is so desperate to make their marriage work, but he fails to really see Cora. He believes she is intimately close to her children, not following carefully thought out steps to manage their well-being.

Wounding is painful to read because it asks difficult questions we prefer to avoid. At the heart of Wounding is what society sees as the unnatural mother, the monster we hide in a labyrinth of excuses, tiredness mostly. Every mother has experienced a longing to be alone and a subsequent feeling of horror once the longing is granted – we feel lost; what are we now the needs of others are not there to direct our actions? – every mother has lost control, shouted, felt remorseful, a failure. Cora is the deepest expression of those anxieties and though she does nothing beyond what could be tamed into normality, her coldness is shocking, her behaviour to her son on one walk to school when he steps in dog mess, is shocking, but Cora understands this, she understands her own monstrosity and seeks to absolve herself in pain. Some may find this search unnerving, it is a religious sort of purging she seeks, and eventually it consumes her. The pain remakes her, allows her to feel herself again. The beginning of the novel suggests that that remaking process is ongoing, that the challenges of marriage and parenthood cannot be easily shrugged off, and remain even after the darkest of actions.

Whilst these are essential modern themes – what is a modern, educated, independent mother? – ones that Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin tried to address amidst much controversy, Heidi James’ novel is not only contentious but, unlike We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is also beautifully written. You feel drawn in to the extent that I almost couldn’t breath as the words compelled me to absorb myself in Cora’s world. It felt like Wounding was in conversation with my favourite female writers – Elfriede Jelinek, Marie Darrieussecq, Zeruya Shalev, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag – highlighting new ideas and turns of phrase for our lives as we live them right now.  Wounding is a beautiful, brutal novel that should be on the top of all the most important reading lists of 2014. Out in April and published by Bluemoose Books, make sure you pre-order your copy now.

Next week I will be reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, followed by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, The Infatuations by Javier Marias and The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees.