In Salley Vickers's earlier novel about love and loss, Instances of the Number 3, she wrote: "Some say this is what is meant by the law of karma, a stepping aside from a moment of possibility only to be forever haunted by its unrealised spectre." That Henry Jamesian sense of a missed life -- of what might have been -- suffuses The Other Side of You and reminds us that Vickers is a novelist in the great English tradition of moral seriousness. Her characters suffer, they struggle to be true to both themselves and the promptings of the human heart, and they eventually accept that a quiet accommodation to one's lot may be the most that any of us can hope for. Yet sometimes, during even the most seemingly drab existence, a moment or a memory of real unclouded happiness may be unexpectedly snatched from the maw of time.
The Other Side of You focuses on a period of crisis in the lives of several people, but chiefly the psychiatrist David McBride and the depressed Elizabeth Cruikshank. For no obvious reason, Cruikshank -- an apparently ordinary middle-aged woman, the mother of two grown children -- has attempted to kill herself. As McBride tries to encourage his withdrawn patient to open up and talk, he finds himself thinking more and more about his own death-burdened past. When he was only 5, his 6 1/2 -year-old brother was killed before his eyes in a traffic accident. Forty years may have gone by, but for McBride this is still the central event, in some ways the only true event, in his entire life.
The real problem, the good doctor himself realizes, is "not how to cure or be cured but how to live. . . . The people we were treating were not so much looking for a remedy for anxiety or depression, they were looking for a reason to be alive." McBride soon comes to understand that he and Cruikshank are fundamentally the same. "We are most of us badly cracked and afraid that if we do not guard them with our lives the cracks will show, and show us up, which is why we are all more or less in a state of vigilance against one another." Eventually, Cruikshank does let down her vigilance for a moment but only to murmur a few almost inaudible words: "I was faithless." Not "unfaithful" but "faithless" -- and therein lies the tragedy of her life.
As the now older McBride recalls his patient and this period from his past, we soon realize that there has been some kind of rupture between then and now. But what could it have been? He tells us about his marriage to the sexy, fashion-conscious 42-year-old Olivia, who calls him "darling" and has never wanted children. We learn that he was once in love with Barbara, now the wife of his colleague Dan. He introduces us to his various patients, including a man who is convinced that a wolf lives inside his head and a violent schizophrenic on the mend. Above all, he ponders the human condition and his task as a healer:
"My mind darted anxiously to Elizabeth Cruikshank, whom it was my duty to try to perceive. How far did she want me to see her? But then, how far do any of us want to be seen? On the one hand, it is what we fear most, that our shamefulnesses, disloyalties, meannesses, cruelties, miseries, the sum of our hopeless, abject, creeping failures be finally laid bare. But the very opposite is also the case. I believed -- or believed I believed -- that we are in anguish until someone finally finds us out. And the deeper truth is that human consciousness can hold two contradictory states at once, and all our unmet longings wear an overcoat of fear."
Elizabeth Cruikshank's story is the central panel of The Other Side of You and I don't want to say too much about it. In essence, she was offered a chance at happiness but, lacking confidence, simply couldn't believe her luck. As McBride observes, "it is a hallmark of the damaged that when it comes to their own desire instinctively, ruinously, they tend to court the opposite. So at the point when it dawned on her how much it mattered that he should stay, she suddenly asked, 'Shouldn't you be going? Haven't you things to do?' " This remark leads to terrible and unforeseeable consequences. There exist, after all, "invisible turnstiles which, having let us pass easily through them, yield to none of our most strenuous efforts at return."
Vickers herself once practiced as a psychologist and has said that her favorite authors are those who explore the tribulations of the heart -- Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. In her own novels -- the most famous is Miss Garnet's Angel -- Vickers often uses works of art as entrées into the self. In this new book, the painter Caravaggio is crucial, in particular two very different depictions of the supper at Emmaus, that moment when the risen Christ reveals himself to two of his disciples. "A real artist," explains an art historian named Thomas Carrington, "knows the other side of himself better than the side he's in at the time. You don't paint as you are; you paint as you're not. But you only know what you're not through knowing what you are."
Much later, McBride stands with Elizabeth Cruikshank before a canvas of Caravaggio's youthful David, who is holding the head of Goliath:
"David also knew those moments of choice when Yes and No collide . . . the comprehension that all our acts have consequences, which we must bear, and with which we must live consciously, if life is not to become a desperate flight from ourselves."
This is, I need hardly say, a heartbreaking novel and, yes, a love story. Some readers may feel that Vickers's diction is outmodedly formal and her observations verging on the sententious. I don't. After all, she is writing about grief and regret and self-knowledge, of how to live with the recognition that one has made the wrong choices and that they are unchangeable. As Dr. McBride says, "It's naive to pretend that life for many people isn't pretty wretched much of the time."
The title for Vickers's novel comes, quite appropriately, from T.S. Eliot ("Who is the third who walks always beside you? . . . Who is that on the other side of you?"). Eliot is, after all, one of the laureates of disappointment, of "the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened." Vickers's prose possesses something of that same still, sad music. "Poor all of us," she writes, "if we but knew it, blindly crawling along our parallel lines, unmindful that all around us are others as much in need of comfort and consolation."
If you enjoy the work of Marilynne Robinson, Penelope Fitzgerald, James Salter or Anita Brookner, you should be reading Vickers. All these authors reflect, with grace and gravity, on life's moments of sorrowful epiphany, so achingly summarized by the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Heywood:
O God! O God! That it were possible
To undo things done; to call back yesterday. . . .
By Salley Vickers
Farrar Straus Giroux
262 pp. $24