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Colin Thubron: A Cruel Madness

Daniel Pashley is a schoolmaster at a boys preparatory school, who does volunteer work in a local mental institution near the Black Mountains (it is interesting to note that that other Brit travel writer-cum-novelist, Bruce Chatwin, also set his novels in the Black Mountains). While there he sees a woman whom he thinks he recognises. It is, in fact, Sophia, the only woman he has ever loved. He met her when he hurt his leg, playing rugby and she was a doctor at the local clinic. However, she broke their relationship off and went to London.

So is she a doctor or a patient? It seems quite clear initially. When he talks to her, she at first ignores him and then maintains that she is made of glass and that he is looking right through her. But then she hands him a brief autobiography where it seems apparent that, at least initially, she was a doctor in the institution. The plot thickens when he gains access to the patient’s files and there is no record for her but there is a record for him, upon which he admits he is a patient there. From there, the inevitable happens. Maybe Sophia isn’t there at all. Maybe there wasn’t a Sophia and maybe Daniel never taught at a prep school. Maybe the whole story is Daniel’s fantasy. And, of course, that is what Thubron is writing about – the very shady barrier between what is real and what is not, between sanity and madness. This is no Cuckoo’s Nest where the patients revolt but rather a low key English novel which, with style and imagination, shows that it is a fine line between the two.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Viking