Dudman, Clare: 98 Reasons for Being
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Penguin © 2006, 352 pages [amazon]
I wrote of Clare Dudman's novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead that it is "equal parts science and poetry." Something similar could be said of her book 98 Reasons for Being, which tells the story of the historical Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann. He was the author of Struwwelpeter, or Shockheaded Peter, a German children's book of rhymed stories about, usually, naughty children and the horrible consequences of their misbehavior. Struwwelpeter was a big deal, wildly popular and much translated, but the Hoffmann on these pages, at least, was more concerned with his true calling in life: he served as doctor at Frankfurt's lunatic asylum in the mid-19th century. Dudman brings Hoffmann to life in these pages as he becomes obsessed with curing a new arrival at the asylum, a young Jewish woman, Hannah, who does not speak initially and seems mired in an overwhelming sadness. After the usual cures prove ineffective—and here the horrors of pre-modern psychiatric treatment are on display—Hoffmann adopts a radical approach: talking. His story, and then hers, slowly drip out during their sessions, so that the source of her misery is finally revealed while his trials and character are likewise laid bare. At the same time, the lives of the other residents of the asylum are explored, both the inmates and the attendants, who live on-site for extended periods. These are all fleshed out characters, very real in their faults and sorrows. It's all deeply moving and sad, in large part, and beautifully written throughout. Every time I opened the book I was spellbound by it. It is an added treat that some of Hoffmann's stories are featured in the book, fit between the chapters, and they are surprisingly relevant to the surrounding story.