The Cultural Gutter

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Bitter Coin

Chris Szego
Posted May 8, 2014

warmemorialGenerally I try to keep my columns from retreading old ground. There are so many great books, authors and ideas out there that it seems a waste to repeat any of them. But today I’m going to revisit Simone St. James. Because… damn.

Shropshire isn’t the kind of place I expected to have a revelation about war.

Shropshire, for those who don’t know, is a county in the west of England which  runs along the Welsh border. It is rural, pastoral, and intensely, gorgeously  English. The Shropshire Way, a group of interconnected trails that wind through and across the county, was an irresistible lure even for an overeager, underexperienced Canadian hiker.

Some of the paths were broad and straight and easy, laid on former railway land. Others were narrow dirt paths, cutting straight across farmers’ fields and generally filled with cows. All of it was open to the lush, verdant, ridiculously beautiful Shropshire countryside.

Each section of the trail was designed as a day hike. The Way ran between cities, though some of the cities were villages, and some of the villages were tiny clusters of civilization you could only call hamlets. And every single one of those hamlets had a war memorial in its centre.

shropshire

It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the concept. I live in Toronto: we have a number of war memorials here. We studied several different wars in school, learning about cause and consequence, about the kind of damage that takes generations to heal. But there, in those sleepy sylvan crossroads, I finally began to understand what that actually meant.

City monuments are big. They have to be: they need to remind a large audience to pay attention. It is horrible and heart wrenching and necessary to read names by thousands in places like Washington. But in hamlets too small to be named on any map, it is somehow even more pointed. The forty names listed might have represented half the area’s population. An entire generation – most of it my age or younger – vanished. All of a sudden it wasn’t just history any more, it was personal. The scale of loss weighed out in stark, cold coin.

I am reminded again every time I read Simone St. James.

Silence for the Dead is St. James newest novel. It bears a structural similarity to her first two books, The Haunting of Maddy Clare and An Inquiry Into Love and Death in that it is a ghost story set in England after the first World War. But it is an entirely new story, pure and powerful, and it has stayed with me for weeks.

silenceforthedeadIt’s 1919 and Kitty Weekes can take care of herself. She’s good at finding work, staying alert, and moving fast when opportunity arises. One such opportunity brings her to Portis House, a remote estate currently being used as a private hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, to work as a nurse. The problem is, Kitty has no nursing training at all. Her references are forged. But she’s smart, resourceful and a hard worker, and she figures she can just pick it up as she goes.

Yikes.

In other circumstances, it might have worked. But there’s something wrong with Portis House. Something more than the way the staff is worked to the bone, underpaid, and left without resources. Something worse than the way the patients are treated by the visiting doctors. Something more horrible than the stain in the upper bathroom than will not come clean, or the noises the pipes make at night. Something that gives the patients nightmares.

Something… angry.

With nowhere to turn, and no one at her back, Kitty meets Jack Yates. The  former war hero is handsome, intelligent, and famous, and now a patient in a mental ward. She forces him out of his detachment, and makes him surrender the opiates with which he blurs with worst of his memories. In return, he helps her decode what’s happening to the men trapped in Portis House, and what happened to the family that used to own it.

He also helps Kitty face her own past, and for the first time, makes her want to think about the future. And that’s a good thing. Because when the weather and an outbreak leave them completely isolated, it will take all of Kitty’s strength – mental, physical, emotional – to keep the residents of Portis House safe.

That’s just a potted description of the story, and doesn’t do it justice. It doesn’t begin to describe, for instance, the visceral shock it is to realize just how badly the ‘shell-shocked’ were treated. Those scenes are harrowing to a modern reader, and hard to comprehend to comprehend. While it’s true that today we still have to improve our treatment and stigmatization of mental illness, Silence shows that we’ve come a long way in a hundred years. Even a layperson can recognize the signs of PTSD, and much of the modern world can empathize with it, even if not quite understand. But the men of Portis House are utterly abandoned: by their families, their doctors, their entire society.

Nor does it accurately portray just how interesting Kitty is, how desperate, how determined. Because Kitty has something in common with the patients of Portis House. She knows what it is like to live in a minefield, to know that every step courts pain and disaster. What she fled wasn’t an endless mechanized war, but it was a violent struggle just the same, and it left her with scars inside and out. It’s why she can recognize what’s going on at Portis House. More than any of the other nurses or orderlies, Kitty understands what is haunting the men, and why.  And with Jack by her side, she will face off against a terrifying ghost in their defence.

A word about that ghost, from the fraidiest of cats: it was scary. Its dark whisper and deathly chill was frightening, but somehow even worse was that its sheer familiarity. Spiteful, vengeful, cruel: all the worst impulses of the human heart concentrated into one malevolent package. That might be why I’m so drawn to St. James’ work: it’s not the ghosts that keep me reading, but who they used to be.

Fifteen years after Shropshire, I found similar monuments in the Tuscan hills. The soil is drier there; the air a little less sweet, the colours in a completely different palette. But in one major way, the two areas were exactly the same:  filled with the same tiny towns with huge gaping wounds in their histories. And the same weathered monuments in the town squares.  Only this time, those monuments were dedicated to a group we were trained to think of as ‘the enemy’.

I keep coming back to Simone St. James because she gets that it’s all the same damned loss. That we’re all fighting the same wars, on the same fronts, and we all pay in the same bitter coin. That we’re all struggling with our ugliest selves against hatred, ignorance, fear, and the violence they engender. That we have more choices than surrender or death.  That we can learn and grow and change enough to leave the fight behind.

 

warmemorialwarmemitaly

    Chris Szego hopes that one day we’ll be able put down the goddamn weapons.

Comments

One Response to “Bitter Coin”

  1. Carol Borden
    May 13th, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    A beautiful piece, Chris. This section was especially powerful:

    “I keep coming back to Simone St. James because she gets that it’s all the same damned loss. That we’re all fighting the same wars, on the same fronts, and we all pay in the same bitter coin. That we’re all struggling with our ugliest selves against hatred, ignorance, fear, and the violence they engender. That we have more choices than surrender or death. That we can learn and grow and change enough to leave the fight behind.”

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