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Durham University

Department of English Studies


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Publication details for Professor Patricia Waugh

Waugh, Patricia (2016). Memory and Voices: Challenging Psychiatric Diagnosis through the Novel. In Memory in the Twenty First Century: New Critical Perspectives from the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences. Groes, Sebastian London: Palgrave Macmillan. 316-324.

Author(s) from Durham


A novelist might be thought of as a person who regularly speaks with the dead and the departed: as Hilary Mantel has observed, ‘only the medium and the writer are licensed to sit in a room by themselves with a whole crowd of imaginary people, listening and responding to them. Social convention allows the medium and the writer to talk to the dead’.1 Mantel brought the observation to life in Beyond Black (2005), taking the comic novel to new and unvisited places. A black comedy-cum-ghost story-state of the nation-satirical-fantastical work proposing ways in which we might expand our notions of selfhood and the real, it is her most audacious novel, her most wildly fantastic, and yet it is also the closest of all her novels to the autobiographical memories excavated in her memoir, Giving up the Ghost, published two years before. A familiar story of a youngish woman battling with the demons of an abusive childhood, Alison comforts herself with food and grows huge but, as she realises how her bulk confers an enviable ‘stage presence’, she sees too that her attunement to pain and suffering and her experience of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations (AVHs), ‘hearing voices’, in non-medical jargon, allows her to somehow externalise an inner pain felt only as bodily and physiological suffering. That endows her with the gift of ‘sensitivity’, a hyper-vigilant awareness of others that means she can ‘listen in’ to the recesses of their inner lives, to memories and desires not even available to themselves. It is only at the end of the novel that the pieces of the plot come together to reveal that the strange voices and presences encountered by Alison are not visitations from a spirit world, but are emanations from her mind, dissociated memories of childhood abuse, protracted negligence, violence and violation of her mental and bodily integrity that have remained inaccessible until she allows into her house at the end of the novel the strange young man whose death opens her own capacity for feeling.

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