When I begin a novel, I anticipate a journey into new or differently interpreted experiences and I hope to be provoked into new or deeper avenues of thought. Wounding satisfied all these hopes. The novel tells the story of Cora, a woman in her thirties, who seems to have everything: a loving husband, two children (boy and girl), a good job, a house with a garden. But Cora is not happy, she is lost in a world in which the demands of others, specifically of the family, define her. They define her body – the marks that childbirth leaves; the power of instinct to enforce a soothing hand – and they empty her mind: she must do what is expected of her, she must mimic a happiness she does not feel because marriage and children have robbed her of selfhood.
Half of the narrative is from Cora’s perspective, in close third person, and half is in Cora’s husband’s voice. He tells us the story of how they got together and their life as a couple. He is so desperate to make their marriage work that despite being haunted, almost mesmerised, by the absence he senses in Cora, he does his best to see what we all expect to see, not what is really there.
Wounding is painful to read because it asks difficult questions we prefer to avoid. At the heart of Wounding is what society sees as the unnatural mother, the monster we hide in a labyrinth of excuses, tiredness mostly. Every mother has experienced a longing to be alone and a subsequent feeling of horror once the longing is granted – what are we now the needs of others are not there to direct our actions? Every mother has lost control, shouted, felt remorseful, a failure. Cora is the deepest expression of those anxieties and though she does nothing beyond what could be tamed into normality, her coldness is shocking even to Cora herself. She understands her own monstrosity and seeks to absolve herself in pain. Some may find this search unnerving, it is a religious sort of purging she seeks, and eventually it consumes her. The pain remakes her, allows her feel herself again. The beginning of the novel suggests that that remaking process is ongoing, that the challenges of marriage and parenthood cannot be easily shrugged off, and remain even after the darkest of actions.
Whilst these are essential modern themes – what is a modern, educated, independent mother? – Heidi James’ novel is not only contentious it is also beautifully written. You feel drawn in to the extent that I almost couldn’t breath as the words compelled me to absorb myself in Cora’s world. It felt like Wounding was in conversation with my favourite female writers – Elfriede Jelinek, Marie Darrieussecq, Zeruya Shalev, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison – highlighting new ideas and turns of phrase for our lives as we live them right now. Wounding is a beautiful, brutal novel that should be on the top of all the most important reading lists of 2014.