A.F. Brady (www.afbrady.com)
Samantha James is a staff psychologist at a Manhattan psychiatric hospital. When a new patient is assigned to her, Sam has trouble working out exactly why he has been given a mandatory stay at the hospital. Richard is uncooperative and quiet, refusing to fill in any forms or answer any questions, and Sam can find no diagnosis and can come up with no treatment plan. As their relationship develops, and as Sam’s life starts to fall apart, she discovers that Richard has dark secrets, but that he might just be the sanest person she knows.
At the centre of psychotherapist A.F. Brady’s debut novel, we find Sam, a relatively young New Yorker working in a psychiatric hospital, where her star is on the rise; loved by her boss, and a role model for more junior members of staff, Sam has a winning way with her patients and gives the impression that she lives the perfect life. Inside – the story is told in first person from Sam’s point of view, so we find ourselves, quite literally, on the inside – we find a much different story. Sam is an alcoholic who lives with an abusive lover, whose working persona is little more than a thin, and very fragile, façade.
When we first meet Sam, she is hanging over the bin in her office, vomiting after a drinking session the previous night. This is not unusual, we discover, and leads to a hilarious misunderstanding later in the book. Despite the constant hangover, Sam is good at her job, to the point that she is seen as something of a teacher’s pet to her boss, Rachel. It is no surprise, then, that she is assigned to newcomer Richard, who is proving to be something of a handful. Richard doesn’t seem to want help, and none of his notes are particularly useful in helping with his diagnosis. All Sam knows is that he has spent some time in prison, and that his stay at Typhlos is a mandated condition of his release.
Outside of work, we see a very different Sam. She spends much of her time in Nick’s bar, often with her lover, Lucas. To others, they seem to have a perfect relationship, the dream couple, but Lucas has problems if his own: he is a drug addict and serial abuser, often sending Sam to work with cuts and bruises that need to be covered up with industrial-strength make-up. This Sam is something of a conundrum: we watch her leading group therapy sessions with women who have suffered at the hands of abusive husbands and boyfriends, yet she is unable to extract herself from her own hell.
Despite the disjointed nature of Sam’s two halves, she is a very engaging character with a wicked sense of humour. Her first-person narrative gives the reader some insight into the thought processes of a woman in an abusive relationship, obviously drawn from the author’s own extensive knowledge of the subject. It is difficult to reconcile the strong, confident character that appears before her patients with the weak, frightened individual who bends to Lucas’ every whim, becoming little more than an extension of him. It’s an incredible portrayal, and gives the novel an intensity that sucks the reader in from the moment we first meet Sam.
Brady’s talent lies in the creation of realistic and identifiable characters. Aside from the central characters – Sam herself, her friend and colleague David, Richard, Lucas – The Blind is peopled by a colourful cast of misfits and oddballs, a microcosmic cross-section of New York brought together by their shared problems, crimes and assorted troubled pasts. Anyone who has seen or read the wonderful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will recognise many of these characters, updated for the twenty-first century: Tashawndra, the mother of eleven children, all taken from her by Social Services; Devon, who smears the back of his jacket with faeces (“the shit jacket”, his therapist calls it) in an attempt to maintain a bubble around himself, leaving small piles of brown “confetti” wherever he goes. To my mind, the most depressing character is also the best-drawn and most instantly-recognisable. Eddie’s speech patterns define the man, and when he starts to speak and rap on Sam’s door, we can see him clearly:
[“Sssssammmm, it’s an important day today, and I need to talk-to-youuuuu.” Eddie pulls open my door and wiggles his way inside my office.]
Brady presents Sam’s story in an unusual and distinct writing style. There’s a touch of the telegraphic, and Sam’s outside life and her relationship with Lucas, feels somehow pretentious and nihilistic, the brand names mixed with a sense of inertia that echoes Bret Easton Ellis’ wonderful prose as he describes the life of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
A.F. Brady’s The Blind is an exceptional debut, a character-driven piece populated with engaging and realistic characters who pull us into the story. While the climactic revelation will come to the reader several chapters before Sam herself realises what’s going on, it doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable. I’ll be watching out for Brady’s next novel, and recommending this one unreservedly.