Review Nine Lives By Bernice Rubens


Review: Nine Lives By Bernice Rubens Essay, Research Paper

Don’t kill me, I’m only the therapistNine Lives

by Bernice Rubens

247pp, Little, BrownIn his pioneering book Against Therapy (1988), the former psychotherapist Jeffrey Masson tried to come to terms with having wasted years of life in what he had come to believe was a corrupt and wicked profession. He called for therapy’s abolition, claiming: “The structure of psychotherapy is such that no matter how kindly a person is, when that person becomes a therapist, he or she is engaged in acts that are bound to diminish the dignity, autonomy, and freedom of the person who comes for help.” Donald Dorricks, the anti-hero of Bernice Rubens’s new novel, Nine Lives, would probably be in broad agreement with Jeffrey Masson. Except Dorricks’s answer to the problem of psychotherapists is rather simpler than Mr Masson’s: he just kills them. Donald Dorricks is the perfect English murderer, as defined in George Orwell’s famous essay, “Decline of the English Murder”: “a little man of the professional class, living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs”. Donald is an accountant. He lives with his wife, Verine, in some nameless, quiet street in London. Or rather, he lived with his wife, Verine, in some nameless, quiet street in London. By the time we get to meet him in Nine Lives, Donald is serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison, for the murder of 10 innocent people – nine of them psychotherapists (the 10th, a dentist, was a mistake). Donald reveals in his diary how he kills these poor individuals – choosing them at random, booking a consultation or a therapy session, and arriving dressed up in a variety of disguises. He tries a beard, a bowler hat, and a vicar’s outfit from a theatrical costumier. He also goes out killing while dressed in his wife’s clothes, but apparently she’s used to him cross-dressing, so she doesn’t notice: “She knows about this little hobby of mine and she gladly gives me free access to her wardrobe… She’s a real brick.” Done up in his finery, after a few preliminaries on the proverbial couch, Donald then strangles his victims with a guitar string. What he refuses to reveal to anyone, until the end of the book, is his motive. Donald’s extremely bloody diary entries are interspersed with the story of the haphazard investigations of the crimes’ investigating officer, a DI Wilkins, and with the light-minded comments of Verine, a woman who’s not even sure about how to say her own name: “That’s been my trouble all my life. Not knowing how I’m pronounced. My parents called me Verry, which gave me no clue at all.” Verine stands by her husband, and throughout the book struggles to work out why: “What was so odd about me that I couldn’t go along with the majority verdict? I suppose it was pride. For who could I admit to having lived with and loved such a man? It was vanity, the flip-side of my self-contempt.” Neither Verine nor DI Wilkins seem to have any understanding of Donald’s huge capacity for evil, or of his clearly psychotic state of mind. Even on the point of arresting him for the murders, DI Wilkins can’t believe that Donald could possibly do wrong: “There was no way this Mr Dorricks was a killer.” What’s truly terrifying is that Bernice Rubens manages to convince the reader to take him at face value also. You almost begin to believe him when he claims that his mission “is the quintessence of innocence. It is a truly honest protest and, in the long run, it will fulfil its purpose. A noble purpose, which is simply for the benefit of mankind. I say that not with arrogance, but with absolute certainty.” Where have you heard that sort of thing before? “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker”, perhaps? Something like that. (Adolf Hitler: speech in Munich, March 15 1936.) Nine Lives takes the material of true crime, of shlock, and of TV drama, and turns it into literature. The book might be described as a study in how ordinary people can do and connive in extraordinary evil. Indeed, Bernice Rubens’s whole career might be described as a study in how ordinary people can do and connive in extraordinary evil, right from her first novel, Set on Edge (1960), through the Booker prize- winning The Elected Member (1969), and onwards – a neat two dozen novels now, grim entertainments every one. She describes a world that is apparently normal and consistently horrid, in a prose quite plain and quite simple. She’s like David Lynch’s granny. She’s a face-down Thora Hird.To her many fans the new book will come as no great surprise and be greatly welcomed. In a famous dictum, she once remarked: “The acid test of a good piece of writing, even if it is of violence and cruelty, is that it must make one’s ears water.” Nine Lives is another fine piece of pithing.· Ian Sansom is the author of The Truth About Babies (Granta)

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