In 1920s London, the population was still reeling from the twin shocks of the Great War and the flu epidemic. An entire generation of young men have been shattered in mind and body. Against this backdrop, an ambitious young psychoanalyst explores the emerging field of graphology: peering into his patients’ broken minds by way of their handwriting…
The Fractured Man is a sophisticated blend of psychological investigation coupled with social commentary, pitched at a particularly interesting and oft-overshadowed moment in history. The central character’s fascination with graphology and all it reveals was intriguing and informative; the author cleverly contrasts this brave new science of the (open) mind with the cripplingly closed society of the professional and upper classes.
A new patient exhibits bizarre symptoms which could establish our protagonist as the leader in an experimental field. But the personalities which emerge from this troubled mind are far too close to home for comfort. In an increasingly feverish and claustrophobic atmosphere, the author develops a slow-burn representation of a fragmenting mind, one which weaves together threads from a troubled childhood, sibling rivalry, parental oppression and the horrors of war. At times the narrative is so gothic that it almost feels like it was written a hundred years ago. It’s certainly similar in style to the eerie ghost stories of a bygone age; if you liked Woman In Black then this should similarly entertain you.
I particularly liked one of the supporting characters, Stanislav, an Eastern European with a chequered past who provides a solid anchor in the midst of uncertainty and flat-out weirdness. I also enjoyed the sequences which take place in Russia, after WW1 has officially finished and which provide a suitably chilling backdrop for confrontation and disintegration. The journey by ship into Arctic waters, trapped by freezing ice, is wonderfully, queasily and bloodily described.
The Fractured Man is let down a little by its editing. The author seems to use an awful lot of commas, which aren’t, necessarily, in the right places, all of the time, and so they serve to disrupt, the flow of the narrative, rather than to enhance it, and provide clarity or emphasis. If you see what I mean. That’s forgivable: I was rather more surprised to find that the name of the pivotal patient was spelled in two different ways (Raphael and Rafael).
However, the bigger flaw in this intelligent period thriller is its ending which the publisher possibly over-hyped a touch by describing it as ‘a shocking conclusion.’ I was not shocked. Or surprised. Or even slightly taken aback. The final plot twist is kinda obvious to seasoned mystery readers – it felt inevitable sometime around the halfway point. Interestingly, the lack of any great suspense and a flabbergasting finale didn’t affect my enjoyment of the overall story. The plot was resolved in a consistent and credible manner which certainly fulfilled my expectations. The destination wasn’t the most important thing here: the central character’s journey of personal discovery was a truly satisfying experience.
So while I wouldn’t say that The Fractured Man is an entirely successful debut novel, it was more than good enough for me to hope that author Juliet Conlin cracks on with the next one. I’ll look out for it.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Fractured Man by Juliet Conlin is available as an ebook or paperback