176pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
‘The cubicle is clean, with only minimal graffiti; she supposes only adults use these toilets. Accordingly, there are stickers offering the numbers of counselling services and taxi firms. A poster reminds her that the police will protect her if her partner is abusive; the poster also conveniently lists the types of abuse one might encounter. She wipes herself, stands and pulls up her knickers, smoothing her skirt down. She washes her hands, avoiding her reflection. She doesn’t want to think about her husband or children, but they prey on her mind constantly, no matter what, she can’t shake loose. She is an animal in a trap that will have to resort to chewing off its own limb to escape.’
Alienation is a powerful subject. For women, life can trigger a desperation verging on madness. Their bodies can become their enemies, their partners and children lethal traps. The literature on female breakdown is large, and shocking. The shock is that of recognition.
In this, her debut novel, Heidi James explores an extreme case of self-harm. She opens with an arresting close-up of an unnamed damaged woman lying in a hospital bed being looked after: ‘swaddled’, ‘unable to hurt herself’, ‘reduced to a thing that loves’.
Then we meet Cora, a financial-services manager, commuting home from work, eerily detached and going through the motions. Already, in the first paragraph, the ‘blunt scissors’ of the ticket-gates place us in existential horror territory. At work, Cora is completely in control; inside, though, she is in danger, seeing teeth and mouths everywhere. At home, she moves in family life as if in a nightmare, everywhere at risk of erasure or violence. Her children’s and husband’s love is ‘a beast, ripping chunks from her body’.
As we follow Cora through her minefield, we hear also from her husband (known only as ‘he’), who thinks of his family as ‘ordinary, normal people’. As Cora’s crisis deepens, we see him trying to puzzle out what’s going on: does she have a lover, is it something he’s done, why isn’t she coping?
Neurotic with her husband in private, abusive to their friends in public, Cora is hiding something truly terrifying: she is unnatural. In one of the most shocking scenes, she terrorises her little boy: ‘She is pleased by his fear. It is as reassuring as money in the bank.’
Fear of blankness, and fear of her own anger, drive Cora to extremes. She begins to torture herself in order to feel – or maybe in order to tolerate her own lack of feeling. First with clothes-pegs, then with sex-aid clamps, she pinches her nipples. She digs out one of her finger-nails, rips out her hair. She picks up a man in a bar, invites rough sex, then finds herself biting his penis. By the end, she has taken mortification of the flesh to its absolute limit.
Hailed by Byte the Book as ‘a beautiful, brutal novel’, Wounding is a searing portrait of a woman on the edge, and should provoke much discussion.