The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday
I have often said that one of the reasons that I enjoy being part of a book group is that I am required, at least once a month, to read out of my comfort zone. The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday was well out of my comfort zone! I had heard of Paul Torday and his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which was published in 2007, was made into a major British film starring Ewan McGregor in 2011. So I was very interested to be reading a book by this author. He turned to writing late in life and scored a huge international hit with that first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
He wanted to find what he termed the “ultimate story”, one that would bewitch readers, and he went on writing compulsively because he was still trying to find out what it was. To this end, each of his seven novels explored a different genre. Torday admitted once that, after discovering his ability to get published, he perhaps treated writing like learning to ride a bike: he kept pedalling like mad because he was afraid that if he fell off he might not be able to get back on. He sometimes suggested that he might stop writing, but never really meant it, and at his death left uncompleted yet another novel. He was born in Croxdale, County Durham, England. He was the eldest of three sons of Laszlo Torday and his Irish wife, Eileen. His father had emigrated from Hungary with his parents in the late 1930s and the family settled in the north-east as government grants were available for business set-ups. Laszlo was a physicist and his father a scientist and they founded an electroplating business that would develop into marine engineering.
Torday went to the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle and late won a scholarship to study English at Pembroke College, Oxford. After he graduated, his father insisted that he should do a business course in Manchester. He subsequently joined the family firm, Torday & Carlisle.
What Torday never publicly disclosed was that his extraordinary output, one book a year from 2007, reflected a personal race against time. He had wanted to write all his life but he was faced with a cancer diagnosis shortly after his first book was swept away on the whirlwind of an international award-winning literary sensation and he recognised the extent to which his time might be limited. Paul Torday, author and businessman, born 1 August 1946; died 18 December 2013 survived by his wife, Penelope, his sons and two stepsons and three grandchildren.
The Girl on the Landing tells the story of Michael and Elizabeth who have a steady, if passionless, marriage. Michael is utterly reliable, decent and dull. His life consists of Grouchers, his Mayfair gentleman’s club, and Beinn Caorrun, the Perthshire estate in Scotland he inherited from his parents. He remains indivisible from it, much to Elizabeth’s frustration. She was not drawn to Michael only for his money: Elizabeth finds in Michael the complete dependability her father lacked, although she is aware that they do not laugh a lot together. Even on the morning of her wedding, Elizabeth finds herself half hoping that Michael will not turn up but of course, he does.
The story is told by Michael and Elizabeth in roughly alternating chapters. The Girl on the Landing begins 10 years later when, staying for the weekend in an Irish country house, Michael is struck by a painting of a girl in a green dress walking across a landing. On mentioning it to his hosts, Michael is confused to be told that there is not a girl in the picture. He goes back to check and discovers that the girl is no longer there. This the first in a series of unsettling jolts, as Michael’s internal reality starts to conflict with the outside world as perceived by those around him. The girl in the green dress starts appearing to Michael more and more frequently, and introduces herself as Lamia. Her presence, at first beguiling, becomes increasingly ominous, until it seems she “was always whispering to me, whether I was awake or asleep”.
Elizabeth begins to notice a change in her husband’s behaviour. Her slight unease at discovering an unopened packet of strange medication is tempered by her relief at finding that the lifeless man she thought she had married has been transformed into the passionate Mikey. He takes her to Rome, Italy, where, in contrast to their first honeymoon, “a few damp days” in a cheerless hotel in Ireland, their time together seems “an endless daze of wine, and food, and happiness”. However, it is a happiness that proves short-lived when they return to London, England. Elizabeth starts asking questions and discovers that in her husband’s past he was known, as a child, as “Mental Mickey”. Then, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent a year in a secure unit before, thanks to some “chemical engineering” otherwise known as Serendipozan, it was considered safe to release him. The important thing, the psychiatrist tells Elizabeth, is that Michael keeps taking his medication. Of course, he has already stopped.
I found the end of the novel rather disappointing. Torday is such an intelligent writer that almost until the very last word I was expecting him to play with the reader, to overturn the stereotype of the violent schizophrenic. He does not do so and, as a depiction of a severe mental health problem, the book portrays a negative stereotype. Elizabeth takes over the narration and we lose touch with the reality of her husband’s experience. Michael’s earlier account is brilliantly handled. He struggles to find a sense of self and he describes his sense of coming back to life as the anti-psychotics leave his system. Elizabeth’s description of looking into his eyes and “trying to understand how much of what was behind them was still human” fails to convince. It is so negative as a description of mental health, that it is really disappointing.
Nevertheless, The Girl on the Landing is well worth reading, although it did not appeal to me.