I don’t really know where to start with this extraordinary novel from Sophie White. I finished it and sat in a stunned silence for while, unsure what I’d just read. I love books that stir up feelings and there were so many: empathy, sadness and curiosity soon gave way to confusion, disgust and horror. This is a psychological horror that’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s also incredibly lyrical, atmospheric and strangely beautiful. We follow teenager Aoileann and her claustrophobic life on an island somewhere off Ireland, where there are few residents, even fewer visitors and a dialect that bears little relation to the outside world. Aoileann’s whole world is the house where she helps care for ‘the thing’ a wreck of a human being who never speaks and whose every need is met by others. Our unease, already awakened by the strange atmosphere and narration, is further aroused when we find out ‘the thing’ is Aoileann’s mother. How did she end up in this state, unable to do anything for herself, suffering from bed sores and her hands bloody stumps from scratching at the floor during her occasional nocturnal rambles? Why are they caring for her in this rudimentary way? Aoileann’s grandmother has instigating the care routine, a rather Heath Robinson affair done with no occupational therapy, no medical equipment or intervention.Why does her grandmother Móraí insist that Aoileann stay indoors, away from other islanders and with reminders to never talk about ‘the thing’? My mind was filled with so many questions, and alongside them grows Aoileann’s curiosity about why she’s never been to school and why she had to fight to be allowed to swim in the sea. Most confusing of all is that Móraí spits on the ground where Aoileann has walked, like a Romany warding off the evil eye.
Sophie White sets the scene so incredibly well with three sections that encompass Aoileann’s world, entitled my mother, my home and my house. The house has a forbidding look. Where once it had windows and a door that opened onto the sea view and towards their neighbours, these apertures are now blocked with stones. This is a house and a family that doesn’t look outward or admit visitors. When Aoileann talks of her home she talks about the island, not the house or her family. She is a wild thing. She belongs to the sea. She hates the land. The cliffs and beaches are perilous and Aoileann feels unnerved when she thinks about the small part of the island she can see and the deep expanse of land ‘lurking beneath us’. Yet in the water she feels free. Despite it being a watery grave for the island’s fishermen, as she slips under it’s silken surface she feels most like herself and swims like a Selkie. Their house is at the dangerous end of the island, the last dwelling on the road that ends with a sheer drop. Her mother is another landscape with it’s own treacherous drops and cavities to swallow one whole. Until now her she has been tended to by Móraí, but with a new visitor centre being built for bemused tourists, she is needed elsewhere for her knowledge of the island’s history. Caring for ‘the thing’ will become Aoileann’s main role. She already hates the thought of it, the monotony of an endless routine, just pushing things in and clearing them out of her ruined body.
The author’s depiction of the diseased or deformed body as a horror took me in two different directions. Intellectually my mind went to Kristeva’s essay on abjection ‘The Powers of Horror’ in which she theorises on the human response to a breakdown between subject and object; in this case our revulsion for the materiality and fragility of the decaying human body, reminding us of our own mortality and eventual decay. Viscerally I felt instant nausea, a type of bodily-felt memory of when I was a carer for my terminally ill husband. In my own writing about the experience I have struggled to be this raw and truthful about how repulsive caring for bodily functions can be, because of the love and sense of protection I still feel about him fifteen years later. I didn’t want people to display those aspects of his care, both for his privacy and because I didn’t want others to remember his declining physical body rather than his spirit, that indefinable ‘thing’ that made him who he was. I knew there were things I felt revulsion about, so what would others think? Here though, there are no tender feelings to complicate the reality of her mother Aoibh’s ruin, we can experience it all. These descriptions are strangely routine, the strange system of ropes and pulleys used to hoist the body from the bed are relayed to us with a detail that’s forensic and almost boring. It’s as if the person relaying the narrative is as worn down by this daily grind as the grooves in the wooden floor made by dragging the chair back and forth from bathroom to bedroom. Then the reality of caring for someone helpless hits us at full force, as she relates how ‘opportunistic bacteria and fungi find life enough in her to breed in places where her skin pleats and gathers’. I remember the drying of these places, the careful patting dry rather than rubbing, the application of barrier cream and the red welts left if a spot was missed. The part that provoked the most visceral reaction in me was the detail of her ruined hands, with just thumbs remaining untouched, her fingers mostly ‘end just passed the knuckle. The pad of her right index finger has worn away entirely and the bone extends like a tiny pick from the flesh’.
It’s with this implement that ‘the thing’ scratches marks in the floor, marks they must sand away before her Aoileann’s father visits and finds out his wife is moving. Aoileann starts to wonder if these marks are an attempt at communication so she records them in a journal and tries to piece them together. If she can, they will be the only words she has ever heard or seen from this wreckage of a mother, created the day something terrible happened and turned her grandmother into a permanent nurse maid, drove her father from the Ireland and left Aoileann with a mother who couldn’t communicate and a grandmother who had nothing left to give. Motherhood has been a fertile ground for horror ever since Frankenstein’s monster first opened it’s yellow eye and came to life. There are parallels here between Aoileann and the monster, firstly the idea of monstrous birth and that nature/ nurture debate on whether such creatures are born or made. There are vivid descriptions of pregnancy, casting a foetus as a parasite, growing inside with the potential to drain the life out of it’s host. Also, Frankenstein only thought about the creation of his monster, not what to do with it should he ever succeed. The monster’s abandonment and confusion is akin to Aoileann, craving love from the women she lives with or her distant father, whose attention is focused solely on the thing in the bed when he visits. Was she born cursed? Or was she cursed by others; her family or the islanders? There’s an emotionally devastating paragraph where she relates her desperate need to be held by a helpless mother and a grandmother who has always held herself apart.
‘if I did pull myself to her and laid my head against her belly, she became rigid and stayed that way until I understood moved away again. When the bed-thing didn’t respond to me, it felt ok because I had never seen it use it’s arms for anything, but Móraí’s arms were capable’.
This neglect has created a strange, damaged, girl and in psychological terms it is easy to see how she becomes attached to Rachel, a visiting artist staying at the new centre and tasked to produce artworks inspired by the island. Rachel is a new mother and Aoileann is fascinated by her bond with her baby Seamus. The love doesn’t fade, even when ‘it’ shrieks constantly and doesn’t let Rachel sleep at night. Aoileann is also drawn to Rachel’s fecund, maternal, body in stark contrast to her own mother’s wasting and slackness. Strange feelings start to stir in Aoileann, feelings she’s never felt and doesn’t understand. There’s excitement at the ideas and opportunities Rachel represents and the sheer productivity of someone who can nurture both her baby and her creativity. Yet there’s also a strangely curdled mix of lust and a neglected child’s need to be nurtured and cradled in the same way Rachel cares for Seamus. I felt for Aoileann, but strangely couldn’t like her. I could see the terrible void at the her centre, created by an unspoken tragedy that befell her family, but also a total lack of love and tenderness. A tenderness that’s missing in the way they care for her mother Aoibh, ‘the bed-thing’. Normally, I’d feel sadness for this girl and her strange, bleak, emptiness. What I actually felt was that the void inside was too big, an emotionless black hole that might swallow up anyone who tries to care. As the book comes towards it’s conclusion the tension is almost unbearable, the horror intensifies and I feared for for anyone who stood between Aoileann and what she needed. Bear in mind that this may be a difficult read if you are pregnant or a new mum. For everyone I’d say this is a raw, open wound of a novel. The gaping, open mouthed cry of a soul that doesn’t even know what is missing.
Meet The Author
SOPHIE WHITE is a writer and podcaster from Dublin. Her first three books, Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown (Gill, 2016), Filter This (Hachette, 2019), and Unfiltered (Hachette, 2020), have been bestsellers and award nominees, and have been described by Marian Keyes as ‘such fun – gas, clever stuff,’ and by White’s mother as ‘very good, of its type.’ Her bestselling memoir Corpsing (Tramp Press, 2021), was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award and the prestigious Michel Déon non-fiction Prize. Sophie’s publications include a weekly column ‘Nobody Tells You’ for the Sunday Independent LIFE magazine. She
has been nominated three times for Journalist of the Year
at the Irish Magazine Awards. She is co-host of the chart-topping comedy podcasts, Mother of Pod and The Creep Dive. Sophie lives in Dublin with her husband and three sons.
Where I End by Sophie White published on 13 October 2022 by Tramp Press as a Flapped Trade Paperback at £11.99
Sophie White is available for interview and to write pieces
For further information, please contact Helen Richardson at email@example.com