OR: Out of Mind

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #39:-

OUT OF MIND: SAM HAYES

Bluechrome pb, 319pp, £7.99

There are two plot strands here that interact and eventually merge. In one we confront Mackenzie, who is married to Richard, a successful businessman, and has three children. Outwardly her life appears entirely idyllic, but the truth is somewhat less palatable and in a series of flashbacks we learn of Mackenzie’s past and the chain of events, the death of one parent and subsequent neglect by the other, which led her to this dreadful state of affairs. Concurrent with this is the story of Katrina, the together and competent friend of Mackenzie’s teenage years, the only good person in her life, who is now an inmate in a mental hospital and on a daily basis dealing with a routine every bit as harsh and restrictive as that Mackenzie confronts in her private life. When Katrina manages to escape she turns up on Mackenzie’s doorstep, posing as a successful businesswoman looking for a place to stay between house moves and wanting to pick up their friendship, but her arrival is the catalyst for dramatic events and changes in the other woman’s life.

This is an exceptional first novel, and one that deserves to find a large audience, a book that merges elements of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Tryon’s The Other, wrapping it all up in a mainstream sensibility and showing considerable maturity in the way it handles potentially controversial material. In less skilled hands this could have been a common or garden schlocker, with the plot leading up to a telegraphed moment of revelation, but Hayes has the good sense to show what she cannot hide and so instead we get a novel of character, one which plumbs the darker corners of the human psyche. The situation Mackenzie finds herself in, and which her past history has left her believing is no better than she deserves, is undoubtedly shocking and for many this will be an uncomfortable read, but to Hayes’ credit there is nothing here that is exploitative; it is the low key and almost casual nature of the cruelties and humiliations Richard inflicts on his wife that make them so realistic. Richard is not a monster heading for meltdown with foam at the mouth and a knife in his hand, but an ordinary guy who seems to have lost sight of where the boundaries are in his relationship, and this recognition of his mundanity, coupled with his wife’s apparent compliance, is what makes the novel so disturbing for the reader. The chief author of Mackenzie’s woes is her father Gabriel, not a bad man per se, but one who is all too fallible and does bad things, in some sense every bit as much a victim of cruel fate as his daughter; there is no excuse for the way he neglects Mackenzie and yet Hayes does offer us understanding, the possibility that things could have turned out very differently. At the heart of the book is Mackenzie’s fight back to health, the backbone of which is the realisation that, simply, she is not to blame; having stopped beating up on herself, she is empowered to stop other people behaving similarly. It’s an uplifting and triumphal note on which to end, an effective antidote to the grimness of much that has gone before. Out of Mind is not an easy read, with rather more of human nastiness than most of us want to see, but ultimately it celebrates the toughness of the human spirit, the ability to overcome adversity, and I highly recommend the book for the way in which it pulls that off.

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