On the last page of Shira Nayman’s dark and probing psychological thriller, Dr. Henry Harrison awakens from a deep sleep to one startling thought: “Doctor, heal thyself.” The reader has sensed this all along; the doctor is not well, his sanity and madness inextricably connected. It’s a testament to Nayman’s skill that Harrison’s final realization affects us anew.
Set in a New York state post-World War II asylum, The Listener tells the story of a highly esteemed psychiatrist studying the effects of war neurosis while pointedly ignoring his own demons of the emotional, sexual and chemical varieties. In the halls of Shadowbrook, we find men who have seen things no person ought to have seen. There are the crazies, the merely “fatigued” and the staff who so badly want to help them. Yet it is one particular patient, the brilliant (if paranoid) Bertram Reiner, who obsesses Harrison. Are Reiner’s claims that his own brother seeks to kill him honest fears or psychotic metaphors? Are his tirades against American complicity in the war an indication of reason or delusion? And is his developing relationship with the head nurse—Harrison’s own object of desire—all in the doctor’s head or physical proof of the messy intersection between the “sick” and the “well”? Harrison tries to help his patient answer these questions. This is not, however, easily done, and as he delves deeper into Reiner’s troubled and often unreliable subconscious, he finds himself unwittingly confronting his own.
The Listener is, at its core, a story of listening, of narration—the lies we tell, the plots and characters we invent. But it is also an honest look at the way trauma and violence afflict an entire generation’s psyche, the way war is a disease that lasts well after the weapons have been laid down. This intelligent and unexpected novel is set in the 1940s, but its message is just as true today.
Jillian Quint is an assistant editor at the Random House Publishing Group.