Wednesday 22 August 2012

Read in 2012 - 23: Containment

A book like no other I have ever read, "Containment" by Jack Retsoff left me with mixed feelings; I was glad when I finally finished it last night, but somehow would have still liked to have a bit more clarity about what had actually been going on.
It is not an easy read, sometimes moving so slow and conversation between characters being so stilted that you want to give them a little shove with impatience, but highly atmospheric with some beautiful word pictures forming inside the mind while reading.

The outer frame is an institution where terminally ill and contagious patients spend their last years; some of them have admitted themselves, others are there against their will. But they all seemingly have settled into routines that give them the appearance of more or less normal lives, with visits to the library and the pool, taking their modest meals in the cafeteria, working (such as mopping the floors) and forming relationships among each other.

The patients are not allowed outside and do not receive visitors, being completely contained in their own world. An outlet for them seem to be their appointments with the doctors of the facility, where they are described as "garbling on", complaining about the food and other such issues. The mental health team consists of four doctors, all of which we meet through the fourth and youngest of them, newcomer Erik Perhkin. The doctors live in comparative luxury; they have coffee, elaborate meals, alcoholic drinks and a grand piano in their lounge, whereas the patients have none of that.

Erik soon learns that there is one special case among the many: a woman who is, unlike everybody else here, not contagious, not even physically ill, but was put into the facility because of her mental health: She has "incurable writer's block" and has been living at the institution for four years. We never learn her real name; she is referred to throughout the book as "the Writer", while her closest attachment is to a male patient called "the Reader". The two of them are lovers with all the emotional involvement but none of the physical, since the Reader is contagious and does not want to infect the Writer.

For every doctor at the facility so far, the Writer's case has proved one they were unable to solve. Erik now comes along and makes another attempt, gaining the Writer's trust as well as the Reader's - for a time.
He manages indeed to "cure" the Writer, but the consequences are tragical.
I won't say more, and hopefully have not given away too much already...!

A really strange book (strange in a good way); the language is never vulgar, always elegant, even a bit old-fashioned at times, something I truly appreciate. Unfortunately, there are many typesetting errors in the book, something I always find hard to tolerate, as those of you who have been reading my reviews for a while will know. The dream sequences are sometimes rather long for my taste, but other readers probably appreciate them more.


  1. This sounds a challenging read. There was a time when I would have tackled it as I did The Gulag Archipelago when it was first released in its English (ie American English) translation. That was a challenging read too. I find it harder to meet the challenges now and am grateful when I see a review which warns me of what to expect.

    1. Unlike The Gulag, this one is not so long as making one to give up, I think. It took me a while to finish, but mainly because I was very busy during the week I was reading it.