Book Review: Biting Tongues

Book Cover for Biting Tongues

TP Bragg’s novel Biting Tongues is thrilling though it is not a (conventional) “thriller”. On the contrary, to a reader the novel might at times seem rather slow. But it cannot be otherwise as where time neither exists, nor passes, there cannot be velocity. I have spoken with prisoners: time was their biggest enemy. They were not lords of their time but time took hold of them – was more powerful, was making them sink into boredom, nothingness, and meaninglessness. And Biting Tongues is about a man who has been imprisoned for seven years and seven months – in solitary confinement. Biting Tongues is indeed full of prisoners, Jack Parsons (the hero) whose life is cut short by his terrible imprisonment. Too much time. Then the Hargreaves (who imprisoned him) – who also become prisoners – in a strange fashion of Jack himself – before being given actual jail sentences. The Hargreaves become enclosed in their own world losing touch with reality existing beyond their house and garden. And this world of theirs also becomes a prison for their daughter Jane- it is she who must break free.

But these are not the only prisoners of the novel: there is Jenny Peters, the nurse. Her family is a sort of prison for her too – as well as those banged up in jails, she has also lost her social life and her freedom. Doctor Amitt is prisoner both of his profession and fame. Not sure anymore if his work brings him real satisfaction. Rich, but unable to enjoy his money, unable to use it in a satisfactory, “creative” way: “The garage doors open automatically. You see there is a point to his long hours. He can afford garage doors that open just in time for the new car to roll in; (…) The car door shuts softly behind – his job brings the softest shutting car doors.” Time is money – but which is worth more? Too much of either of them (especially if connected with complete lack of the other) destroys. And the doctor if not quite imprisoned is enslaved by his desire for Nurse Peters. Jane is in a kind of prison – we do not know much of her life “after Jack” but when we finally get to her, she makes us understand that she has always felt guilty for what happened to the “father of her child”. Maybe we do not know if it’s her feelings of guilt or her being tied to the past that prevents her living a successful personal/family life. And then there is Malcolm – whose family has fled from Czechoslovakia, the only one who from the very beginning of the novel is free. (Here the author should have been more careful about using foreign surnames – it’s a confusion of Czech-Russian, male-female forms!). And – of course – there are the inmates of the asylum trapped by their own particular misfortunes. The main characters do manage to approach their various freedoms as we approach the end of the story: Jack Parsons who leaves the hospital and begins living on his own in the “real” world and Jane who after so many years manages to open up herself and verbalise her feelings of guilt. But we never discover if Doctor Amitt has bought the yacht he dreams of or if Nurse Peters ever finds real fulfillment. The Hargreaves might leave prison but will they ever be able to step out of their narrow-minded world, or see their guilt?

Another question raised by Biting Tongues is the question of normality and insanity. Who/what is or is not normal? Where is the borderline? Jack does not feel himself a crazy man and even Doctor Amitt eventually realises this. But he is in an asylum. Besides, Jack is smart enough to understand some of the psychiatrist’s methods and amuses himself by “underpinning” them (talks purposely about birds although clearly understanding that this is not what the doctor wants to talk about etc.); smart enough to see that he is different from most of the other patients (who are able to see this difference too). Tom and Jack share a pain in common – a lost child – helping them to find a way to each other’s heart and showing clearly that even people whom the “normal” outside world considers different are also human beings with deep feelings..

In most books dealing with psychiatric themes we get to know how “crazy” people are seen but here we have the opposite point of view: how a presumably crazy person sees the presumably normal doctor.
Although a psychologist/psychiatrist might find a few details that do not quite fit, it is clear that TP Bragg (we cannot pretend his knowledge to be as perfect as a psychiatrist’s!) has made a concerted effort to get deeper into the world of asylums, their patients, nurses and doctors with their therapies. Maybe the doctor’s projection of his lost son onto Jack was too tempting – it’s obvious this would happen the very first time you read he has a son and therefore comes as no surprise. As for Malcolm’s supplies of books to Jack (is this escape through literature more thorough and effective than the doctor’s “talking therapies”?), these probably reflect the author’s preferences and are all clearly connected with the main theme of the novel – freedom. TP Bragg’s first published work is a political/cultural novel (The English Dragon), however, in Biting Tongues some of his comments on politics do not quite fit within the context of the narrative although they do serve to highlight the passing of time. It’s not very likely that a person like Jack, cut off for nearly eight years, would think of North Sea oil, Concorde and the EEC (and therefore an empathetic psychiatrist would not use them with reference to Jack). And though a prisoner may well think about politics Mr. Hargreaves certainly did not seem too concerned about anything further than the hedges of his own garden before being put in jail. As for Jack’s passion for chess we can only guess whether this element is a product of the author’s passion for the royal game or whether there is some inspiration by S.Zweig’s Schachnovelle.

I also appreciate the author’s resistance to the seduction of a happy-ending story – the kind of happy-ending suitable for US movies: Jack, Jane and their “son” happily living together at the final credits. The novel does have a kind of happy (and optimistic) end as at least some of the characters discover freedom from their particular prisons. However the novel still respects their deep wounds and the changes these have brought about and does not presume everything will turn back as if nothing has happened in all that time. As if time did not exist.

  • Reviewed by Michaela Laudicina. Michaela Laudicina (nee Vejvodova) was born in 1980 in Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) and now lives in Italy. She has an M.A. in International Relations (University of Prague) and is currently doing a B.A. in Psychology (The Catholic University of Milan). Michaela is married to a Sicilian.

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