Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway, is one of the most unusual books that I have read in a while. It explores the effects of trauma and the crossover between dreams and reality. It asks the reader to consider what they would define as real when ‘pseudo’ events have an impact on everyday life.
The protagonist is seventeen year old Aisling who has been raised by her mother, Beverley, after her father left his pregnant, teenage girlfriend in the care of his maiden aunt, Edythe, and disappeared forever from their lives. They have had little to do with any family members since Aisling was a young child. Beverley, a secretary, is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived and is struggling to deal with the health issues Aisling is currently facing.
For the past couple of years Aisling has suffered blackouts and seizures. She has submitted to a plethora of tests and spent time in psychiatric care but still no cause can be found. When a doctor suggests her condition may be psychosomatic Beverley loses patience. She cannot cope with the way her daughter looks – emaciated with messy hair, grubby clothes and no apparent desire to improve her life or appearance – and after so long trying to find a solution wishes to move on with her own life. Beverley’s boyfriend has asked her to move in with him. When the doctor suggests that Aisling may benefit from a change of scenery Beverley arranges for her to go and stay with Edythe at the old rectory where the now elderly lady has lived all her life.
Aisling wishes to please her mother and desperately wants to get well. She is frightened by the effects of her illness, exhausted from her inability to sleep restfully, drained by constant nausea that prevents her from holding down food. She packs little for her stay in rural Suffolk – the diary where she writes down her dreams as her doctor suggested, and a volume of poetry by William Blake whose dark words bring her comfort.
Edythe treats her great niece with contempt. She values cleanliness and order as on a par with godliness, the personal problems she believes Aisling has allowed to fester as something that can be sorted with strict rules and determination. Edythe’s brother, Robert, is also being cared for at the rectory. He is kind to Aisling but the secrets he shares with her about the old building’s past start merging with her dreams.
Aisling’s dreams have for some time featured a young man named Feodor. Her diary recounts in detail his often violent history. When a shadowy version of him appears to her whilst awake, around the time she discovers a priest hole in the rectory cellar, her world’s collide. Another young man, Chase, who she met briefly in the rectory garden, emerges as a dream time friend. She becomes a part of his world, a post apocalyptic existence where those deemed unfit and undesirable are made to disappear.
The trauma that triggered Aisling’s illness is touched upon but she has dissociated events, tried and failed to wash the stain of them away. Although she is aware that the world she is currently inhabiting is a dream she is unsure how to return to waking life in the rectory, or even if this is something she wishes to achieve given the happiness she has discovered here. In confronting the dangers faced by Feodor and Chase she learns more of terrible events that took place in the rectory, which Edythe cannot allow to be talked of for fear they besmirch her memories of her revered father. It becomes clear that Aisling’s demons have also been suppressed.
Although vividly portrayed and well written it took me some time to engage with the plot. Many of the early sections of the book are bleak, Aisling’s situation painful to contemplate. By halfway through the pace had picked up and I raced through the final third eager to know what came next. The adventure is fantastical, but then dreams are subject to a different concept of reality, whether dreamt awake or asleep.
This is an unusual fantasy adventure grounded in the dark realities of mental illness and escapist imagination. It is a sometimes challenging but ultimately worthwhile read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.