The House in the Waves, by James Hamilton-Paterson, for Timeslip Tuesday

A vintage UK time travel book this Tuesday--The House in the Waves, by James Hamilton-Paterson (1970).  This is time-travel through medically administered drugs (a first in my timeslip reading) that send Martin, a mentally-ill boy, to a late 16th century fishing village near the old manor house in East Anglia where he has been institutionalized. 

Martin. taken from his abusive father when he was six, and been in foster care and institutions ever since, has withdrawn almost totally from reality. He requires assistance with eating and bathing, and makes no effort to interact with anyone. Only his imaginings of ancient oceans and the fossil shells now on dry land are real to him.

But then he finds a handmade balloon (not a party balloon, but handmade with parchment like stuff pieced together) stuck in a tree, with a note attached from a boy pleading to be rescued from imprisonment in a tower. Martin's attention is caught, and so he journeys illicitly from the institution to find and help the writer of the note.

And he finds himself in the 16th century, in a fishing village about to walloped by a tremendous storm. Following a few leads from the (suspicious, but preoccupied) villagers, he comes to the ancient and crumbling house of a mad alchemist. Locked up in a tower by the alchemist, his uncle, is Will, who has been sending out messages on balloons he has made from the skin of mice.... As the storm hits, the alchemist's house collapse, and Will and Martin barely escape.

It was very good time travel, with Will's desperate predicament vividly described, and  a beautifully creepy, yet moving, picture of the crazed alchemist uncle. It is a transformative experience for Martin, who cannot help but be engaged in the trauma of it all.

But then he wakes up in his own bed back in the institution, not having left it at all. It was a dream, a Freudian dream that has cleared his mind, and he is no longer detached from reality.

It was very gripping, and I read it in a single sitting, but there is much that made me uncomfortable re mental illness and children suffering from it. The detail and care with which the fat body of another child who seems to have a development delay was unpleasant, for example. And then there's the magical healing of mental illness being cured through drug-induced time travel and a few pointed remarks from the doctor pointing out elements of Martin's story that resonate with his real life.....not a very satisfying conclusion for the modern reader.

On the other hand, the theme of oceans, and drowned shells, and the fishing village and alchemist's house devastated by waves, makes the story strangely cohesive.  The alchemy part was fascinating.  And it was pleasing to see Martin come out of his isolation, and I did read it in one engrossed gulp. Well worth the $5 I spent on it.

1 comment:

  1. I wondered if the child had Prader-Willi syndrome. [as the thing that is most likely to make LD people fat].

    "Detail" and "care" before the world of body-neutrality or body-positivity.

    There might have been a child reading this who would have felt SO seen and heard.

    The magical healing is problematic.

    The waves and everything are DREAM logic.

    Thank you for letting me know about James Hamilton-Paterson - he was a bit before my time.


    And the larger psychoanalytic psychotherapy scene in the United Kingdom - especially the Kleinians and the Independents eg: Winnicott.

    "Suspicious but preoccupied villagers".

    The alchemist's uncle?

    And how many Freudian-type dreams do we have in our lives? Perhaps 1 in 10,000/100,000 of all our dreams?

    Adelaide Dupont @ Halfway up Rysy Peak


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